England give Tindall and Tuilagi final chance to answer central question
Johnson picks yet another midfield partnership to face Ireland in last World Cup warm-up while Wilkinson returns at fly-half
A 13th different England centre partnership in 35 games? Brian O'Driscoll, the great Irish midfielder about to embark on his final World Cup campaign, would have been licking his lips were it not for the fact that he is licking his wounds instead. O'Driscoll will miss tomorrow's warm-up game in Dublin, the last outing before the big event in New Zealand, after failing to recover from a shoulder injury suffered during his side's defeat by France six days ago and is therefore denied the opportunity to strangle the new red-rose combination of Mike Tindall and Manu Tuilagi at birth.
England's management team, led by the granite-faced Martin Johnson, have spent the last three and a half years bending like soft rubber in selection, twisting themselves into all manner of fantastic shapes in seeking an answer to the centre question – a question that must seem to them to be insoluble. Tindall, a World Cup winner in 2003, has played alongside Olly Barkley, Jamie Noon, Riki Flutey and Shontayne Hape in recent seasons, while a fistful of others, from Tom May and Dan Hipkiss to Shane Geraghty, Toby Flood, Mathew Tait and Matt Banahan, have partnered each other. Hell, there was even a moment when spectacularly ill-equipped Ayoola Erinle had a run in the No 12 shirt. You couldn't make it up, yet Johnson did.
Unsurprisingly, the manager struck an optimistic note in discussing this latest punt: 48 hours before England's most important game in some considerable time, it would have been ridiculous of him to do anything other. But it is difficult to not to think that a fully-armed Irish midfield, with O'Driscoll playing outside Gordon D'Arcy and Jonny Sexton, would have fancied their chances of making a little hay in the summer sunshine.
"We wanted to give Manu another go," Johnson said, acknowledging that the 20-year-old newcomer from Leicester might perform better next month if he has two games of Test rugby behind him, one of them on hostile soil, rather than a single run-out in front of a home crowd at Twickenham. And Tindall? Is he really an inside centre? "We feel this is the right combination for this particular opposition," the manager replied.
A fortnight ago, Tindall led the side against Wales in Cardiff, partnered by the much-criticised Hape. And where might Hape, the man Johnson says he would defend "all day long", be in the pecking order as a result of this selection? "He has a sore knee," the manager said, before adding, slightly confusingly, that the New Zealand-born centre had been available. Is he dropped, then? "He's not been picked," Johnson responded, "but then, neither has Dylan Hartley and 13 others."
Hartley will be on the bench at Lansdowne Road, which is more than can be said for Hape, but the hooker will not be best pleased with life even so. By picking Andrew Sheridan, considered fit enough to start following weeks and months of shoulder trouble, and Steve Thompson alongside Dan Cole in the front row, Johnson has gone for size, and plenty of it. Which may be the shape of things to come.
Last March, when England lost badly in Dublin and saw a Six Nations Grand Slam go west as a consequence, Cole was aided and abetted by Hartley and Alex Corbisiero, both of whom might be said to be more constructive footballers than the men selected ahead of them for this one. Given Johnson's love of quantity in the pounds and ounces department, the starting spots against Argentina in Dunedin a fortnight tomorrow are now Sheridan's and Thompson's to lose.
In saying that he had complete trust in all members of his World Cup party – "I'd travel with 29 if I didn't trust 30, believe me" – Johnson made mention of Jonny Wilkinson, alongside whom he secured the Webb Ellis Trophy on that night of nights in Sydney eight years ago. Wilkinson has beaten Flood to the No 10 shirt, having spent the entire Six Nations "shining the pine" on the bench, and while the manager gave no indication that this was a decisive moment in the outside-half contest, he was happy to accept that experience counts for double at this late stage of proceedings.
"No matter how many Tests he's played, no matter what he's achieved, Jonny is still the one out there working harder than anyone in an effort to be a better player," he said admiringly. "As I said during the Six Nations, when Toby was in the side, there's always a case for picking Jonny."
Interestingly, Ireland have pulled a similar stunt at stand-off by selecting the long-serving Ronan O'Gara, very much a kick-driven 10 in the Wilkinson mould, ahead of Sexton, whose stylistic similarities to Flood are obvious enough. Other intriguing developments see the return of Geordan Murphy at full-back – Rob Kearney, so effective as a Test Lion in South Africa two summers ago, is struggling for fitness once again – and of the hard-bitten Munster hooker Jerry Flannery in the middle of the front row.
There is also a revamp in the loose forward department. Sean O'Brien, the bulldozing flanker from Leinster who was voted European player of the year last term, is suffering from knee ligament trouble, so Stephen Ferris of Ulster will have a gallop on the blind side of the scrum. If Ferris is truly fit, this is hardly calamitous news for Ireland: he is, after all, a player of the highest calibre. There again, the "if" is an unusually large one. There are those in Emerald Isle rugby circles who wonder whether Ferris will ever recover fully from chronic knee trouble.
Ireland have yet to win a warm-up game, but Declan Kidney, their coach, is not even close to panic mode. "I believe we'll get into our stride now," he said yesterday. Johnson was probably nearer the mark, though. "They've lost three and we were very disappointed to lose in Cardiff," he remarked. "They're in a similarly desperate situation to ourselves."
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