Fit Fourie gives Johnson selection dilemma

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Martin Johnson, the England manager, must be sorely tempted to leave well alone ahead of his side's Six Nations meeting with Italy at Twickenham this weekend: for one thing, the current lot ended seven years of hurt by finally winning a game on Celtic soil last Friday night; for another, the proximity of the World Cup in New Zealand demands continuity of selection. There again, Hendre Fourie is fit – and as Johnson openly acknowledges, a fit Fourie is difficult to ignore.

There is no logical reason why the Leeds flanker should not be restored to the starting back row. He is almost as low on Test experience as he is on English blood – Fourie was born in Burgersdorp, not Bradford – but his initial international performances during the autumn marked him out as a player of rich potential, and he has moved onwards and upwards since then. By all accounts, his 40-minute contribution for Leeds against Northampton last weekend was exceptional.

Fourie would have started against Wales six days ago but for a lack of preparation due to calf trouble. Johnson released him back to his club at the weekend on the strict understanding that he would be withdrawn at half-time – a clear sign that the manager wanted to run him against the Azzurri. Sure enough, Fourie was retained by Johnson yesterday at the expense of Joe Worsley, who played off the bench at the Millennium Stadium. If England are serious about fielding a balanced loose-forward combination, they should also move him ahead of James Haskell, whose ability to cover all three back-row positions makes him perfect replacement material.

Johnson is most unlikely to take the "changes plural" approach. Shontayne Hape, yet to make a convincing case for himself as an inside centre of Test class and a serious under-performer in Cardiff, is the most vulnerable of the backs, but with size trumping craft in the collective mind of the management, there are precious few alternatives. Riki Flutey, the most obvious challenger, was packed off home to Wasps on Tuesday night.

One player who might well have made a case for inclusion in the starting line-up, but for suspension, is the fast-developing lock Dave Attwood. The 23-year-old West Countryman, banned for stamping during the Amlin Challenge Cup game between Gloucester and La Rochelle before Christmas, made the news yesterday despite his enforced spell of inactivity by agreeing to leave Kingsholm for Bath at the end of the season. Seen by the Recreation Grounders as a long-term replacement for Danny Grewcock, he has agreed a two-year deal.

Ireland, badly shaken by their below-par performance in Rome last weekend, have strengthened their pack by recalling Jamie Heaslip to the No 8 position for the home game with France on Sunday. Sean O'Brien, who performed the role against Italy, shifts to the blind-side berth, with Denis Leamy dropping to the bench. Unfortunately for the Irish, injuries continue to rule out the wing Tommy Bowe and the flanker Stephen Ferris.