England seek to seal place among elite

Johnson's men need three wins to book a top-four seeding for the World Cup
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The Independent Online

Three more victories will definitely guarantee England a top-four seeding at the 2011 World Cup and keep them well away from the hosts, New Zealand, in the pool stage, but only the dreamers are thinking along those lines. Martin Johnson, the new England manager, is not one of life's "hello birds, hello clouds" characters, and is therefore banking only on a win against Australia at Twickenham on Saturday while hoping that Argentina slip up against Italy, or Ireland, or preferably both, over coming weekends.

England will have a hard time of it between now and the end of November – after the Wallabies, they face the Springboks and the All Blacks – but the likelihood is that they will be among the crème de la crème of elite teams when the World Cup draw is made, almost three years early, at the start of next month. This has nothing to do with last weekend's success against the Pacific Islanders and everything to do with the Pumas' narrow defeat in France. That result hoisted England over the South Americans and into a precious fourth place that is theirs to defend.

Johnson is not entirely convinced by the idea of making the 2011 draw before 2008 is out. "There's nothing I can do about it," he said, wearing an expression that suggested he would very much like to do something if only he could find the right bloke to do it to. "It really doesn't matter whether I approve of the system or not. It is what it is. We haven't talked about the rankings this week and we won't talk about them. A world ranking is not what motivates players ahead of a Test match against a side as good as Australia."

There might well be some demotivation should England find themselves in New Zealand's group when the global rugby community descend on Auckland to contest the Webb Ellis Trophy, but that seems less likely than it did six months ago, when the red rose army were being smashed from one end of All Black country to the other during their summer tour. They may be less than one full point ahead of Argentina – for what it is worth, England now have a ranking of 83.16 compared to the South Americans' 82.22 – but losing against sides higher up the food chain is a lot less costly than losing to those further down. England's next three opponents fill the first three positions in the table; Argentina's next two are eighth and 10th respectively.

After all the talk of scrummaging when Johnson named an England side showing two changes to the tight forwards and Graham Rowntree, the specialist coach, gave voice to his annoyance at the team's sudden fragility in a former area of strength, one of the much-maligned Wallaby set-piece operators, Al Baxter, contributed a few thoughts of his own to the debate.

"It's quite nice to come to a country where the scrum is actually discussed," said the tight-head prop from New South Wales, who has suffered more than his fair share of indignities against the strong-arm Sale forward Andrew Sheridan in recent meetings between the two countries. "In Australia and New Zealand, it's a sideshow. Where I come from, it's guys like Matt Giteau and Lote Tuqiri who get all the attention.

"To turn up here and get talked about is good. OK, I don't like the negative stuff, but as a front-rower, I think the scrum is one of the more important aspects of the game – a real contest and a vital part of the battle. The criticism I get doesn't really worry me: I've been a professional for almost 10 years, I focus on what I'm good at and I'm not reading the papers."

Wales injury blow: Henson out till 2009

Gavin Henson's international comeback is on hold until at least the Six Nations Championship in February after he was ruled out of the autumn Test series due to an ongoing Achilles problem. His ankle was scanned yesterday and he had an injection to help alleviate the injury. "We are just hoping he gets fit and back and available to us," coach Warren Gatland said. Henson has been troubled by the Achilles problem for several months, and last played for Wales in their Six Nations title-clinching victory over France in March. He suffered a serious ankle injury while playing for Ospreys in the Heineken Cup in April – in addition to the continuing Achilles complaint – and he has only started three games this season. In Henson's absence, Tom Shanklin partnered Jamie Roberts in midfield against South Africa last Saturday.