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."

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little