No one ever accused Martin Johnson of asking his playing colleagues to do something he was not prepared to do himself, and the ferocious old Leicester lock is sticking to his principles in his new role as England manager. Having reacted to last weekend's disappointing defeat by Australia by instructing his charges to "trust the system" put in place by the coaching staff, he showed some trust of his own by retaining all but one of his starting line-up for this weekend's contest with South Africa, the world champions, at Twickenham.
The exception was Tom Croft, the blind-side flanker who plays his club rugby at Welford Road, which happens to be Johnson's spiritual home. So much for the theory that Leicester types might have an advantage under this latest red-rose regime. James Haskell, one of precious few successes on the ill-starred summer tour of New Zealand but barely visible in an out-of-form Wasps team since the beginning of the current campaign, will resume in the back row, with Croft filling his seat on the bench.
Johnson could have had all manner of fun in selection, for there were plenty of below-par performances against the Wallabies. By making only a single change in the first-choice XV and bringing in the uncapped Leicester No 8 Jordan Crane for the unfortunate Michael Lipman of Bath among the replacements, he has kept that dark temper of his under lock and key.
"We look at all possibilities in all positions in all our selections," Johnson said yesterday. "This is what we've come up with for this game. We think James has been pretty impressive off the bench in the last two matches and he's been pushing for a start. He is a different kind of player to Tom and he does different things. We expect the Boks to come at us hard, as they always do, and we have to be up for it. There are parts of this sport that aren't optional, and taking people on physically is one of them. We have picked the side we think will give us the best chance of winning on Saturday."
England have traded Croft's potent line-out game and startling pace in open field for Haskell's heavy-duty tackling and ball-carrying properties. It makes perfect sense. The Boks may be suffering from fatigue, not only in body but in mind and spirit, but no one doubts for a second that they will give England a thorough examination at close quarters. Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Pierre Spies – the home side will need Haskell at his super-confident, gung-ho best against that little lot.
"If I didn't think I was up to the challenge, I'd be hiding in my hotel room or getting in my car and driving out of the hotel," said the 23-year-old forward from Windsor. "I've felt a degree of disappointment, of anger, at not being part of the starting line-up over the last couple of weeks, but I have to accept that I let myself down in club rugby at the start of the season while Tom played very well for Leicester. I've had to work doubly hard to get back."
Pressed on the subject of the captaincy – Steve Borthwick, appointed at the start of the autumn series after performing the role in a caretaker capacity during the summer, did not produce the most convincing of performances against the Wallabies – the manager rejected any notion that he might have considered a change. "You people see what happens in a Test match, but you don't feel or hear what goes on out there on the field, and you don't see what happens all week in training," Johnson said. "Steve is a fantastic leader. It's easy to point the finger, but he can't control 14 other players all game."
If Johnson had a beef about the Wallaby game, apart from a deep-seated loathing of finishing second to anyone, it was with England's discipline, or lack of it. "We gave away 11 penalties, eight of them kickable," he said. "They kicked seven of them. A few of those incidents were plain silly, a few of them unlucky, but it boils down to this: if any team concedes 21 points in penalties, it's very difficult for them to win the match. If we cut the penalty count in half, which we can, we'll find life much easier."
Andrew Sheridan and Danny Cipriani, both of whom suffered injuries last weekend, were said to have fully recovered, although a number of players sat out yesterday's training run. Delon Armitage, the impressive new full-back, picked up a knock during the session and failed to complete it, but there was no suggestion from the management that his place against the Springboks was under threat.
England XV to play South Africa
D Armitage (London Irish); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), R Flutey (Wasps), U Monye (Harlequins); D Cipriani (Wasps), D Care (Harlequins); A Sheridan (Sale), L Mears (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), T Palmer (Wasps), J Haskell (Wasps), T Rees (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton), M Stevens (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), T Croft (Leicester), J Crane (Leicester), H Ellis (Leicester), T Flood (Leicester).
(Saturday 22 November, Twickenham)Reuse content