England's lack of front a real worry for Johnson

New forward combination faces tough test against 'much improved' Wallaby pack
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The unexpected return of Steve Thompson to England's starting front row for this weekend's awkward meeting with the Wallabies at Twickenham will inject almost 50 caps' worth of experience into a reshaped tight unit, but the bump-and-grind department remains the source of greatest worry for the manager Martin Johnson, who knows a thing or two about life in the darkened recesses.

England generally beat Australia in one way, and one way only: by dominating up front. Neither Johnson nor anyone else knows whether this new combination is capable of dominating anyone.

Tim Payne, the loose-head prop from Wasps, has never been anything more than Andrew Sheridan's understudy – of his 12 caps to date, half have been off the bench – while David Wilson, the rookie on the other side of the scrum, has played so little rugby this season there must be some lingering doubt over his match hardness. In the second row, the introduction of Louis Deacon after an injury-ravaged 2008-09 campaign is the direct result of Simon Shaw's lack of fitness. It is, at best, a make-do-and-mend arrangement.

England anticipate a difficult afternoon against the tourists, who won the scrum contest hands-down in ransacking Twickenham a year ago and have been upping the ante at the set-piece ever since. "Benn Robinson was the stand-out loose-head prop in this year's Tri-Nations, while Ben Alexander has done a great job in shifting across to the tight-head position," said Graham Rowntree, the England scrum coach, yesterday. "The Wallabies are much improved, full stop."

At least England have something resembling a secret weapon, in the 20-year-old Northampton lock Courtney Lawes, who has forced his way on to the replacements' bench for the first time. Lawes' performance in his club's Heineken Cup win over Munster last month had the selectors purring – if a young second-rower is going to make a statement, giving such luminaries as Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan the runaround is the equivalent of the Gettysburg Address – and Johnson was unusually generous in his praise after confirming the make-up of his team.

"Courtney can make an impact carrying the ball and make an impact in defence," the manager said. "Also, his set-piece work is very good. He has massive potential and we have great confidence in him." Might the manager see a little of his young self in Lawes? Johnson smiled. "Someone sent me a text message saying he is just like me, except he's more athletic, funnier and better looking," he revealed. On that basis, Lawes will be lucky if he ever plays again.

Away from the tight forwards, and the hooking position in particular, Johnson sprang no surprises. Lewis Moody's latest return from injury means England will rely on Leicester's first-choice loose unit, while Danny Care of Harlequins was always favourite to pip Paul Hodgson of London Irish to the scrum-half berth. Shane Geraghty's presence alongside Jonny Wilkinson gives England a southern hemisphere-style "five-eighths" look to their midfield, while Ugo Monye's form for Harlequins has earned him a run at full-back in the absence of the injured Delon Armitage and Olly Morgan.

"We're sure Ugo can do a job in that position," said Johnson, who had no hesitation in shifting the Lions Test player away from his more familiar position of left wing. "He's a very composed character, very mature. We see him as one of our natural leaders."

England team

*U Monye (Harlequins); M Cueto (Sale Sharks), D Hipkiss (Leicester), S Geraghty (Northampton), M Banahan (Bath); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), S Thompson (Brive), D Wilson (Bath), L Deacon (Leicester), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), T Croft (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), J Crane (Leicester). Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton), D Bell (Bath), C Lawes (Northampton), J Haskell (Stade Francais), P Hodgson (London Irish), A Goode (Brive), A Erinle (Biarritz).