Martin Johnson has never been considered one of life's natural radicals, but the team he selected yesterday for this weekend's potentially hazardous encounter with the Pacific Islands at Twickenham certainly had the shock of the new about it. Four new caps, three of them in a heavily remodelled back division, and a fifth on the bench? Not since Clive Woodward pulled an entire colony of rabbits out of his hat for the match against Australia in 1997 has there been such a bold initial selection. And we all know what Woodward achieved a few years later.
Delon Armitage of London Irish and Ugo Monye of Harlequins will feature at full-back and left wing respectively, with Riki Flutey of Wasps – a Junior All Black in another life – at inside centre and Nick Kennedy, a second London Irishman, at lock. Another New Zealand-born import, Dylan Hartley of Northampton, is among the replacements and virtually assured of a run at hooker. "You have to start somewhere," said the manager, by way of explanation. Yes, but where will it end? And how soon?
The fire Johnson is playing with here has little to do with the individuals in the starting line-up, and a vast amount to do with a five-two substitute split between forwards and backs. England are facing the Pacific Islands, not the Springboks; as a result, the body count is likely to occur in the wide open spaces rather than at close quarters. If the manager loses a couple of threequarters to trademark South Seas tackles before the interval, he could end up looking as daft as another of his predecessors, Andy Robinson, who ran out of goal-kickers against the Wallabies in 2004.
"We've taken the implications into account and we have our contingency plans," Johnson said. "There's always a slight risk attached to a five-two split, but we think it right for this game to have a good number of forward options." Those options do not include the Wasps lock Simon Shaw, a first-choice member of last year's World Cup team whose effectiveness as a specialist mauler has diminished under the controversial Experimental Law Variations, under which the maul has all but disappeared.
Flutey qualified as an Englishman – for rugby purposes only, of course – in September and was always the front-runner for the No 12 position. Kennedy was also a decent bet, given his presence on England's summer tour of New Zealand, the diminishing returns from Shaw and the drop in form that has cost Tom Palmer his place. Armitage and Monye are in a different category. Neither was included in Johnson's initial 32-man elite squad and are involved now only because of injuries to Mathew Tait, Nick Abendanon, James Simpson-Daniel and David Strettle.
Armitage, born in Trinidad, lived in France as a youngster and played Under-16 rugby for Les Bleus, only to be told he was too small and too skinny to justify further interest from the national selectors. "I was on the brink of giving up rugby altogether," he said yesterday, "but my father told me: 'You know what? You'll play for England instead.' So we moved here, my family put me through school and I got myself a professional contract with London Irish."
Monye has been on the radar for rather longer. A brilliant track athlete in his teens – "I've done 10.6 seconds for the 100 metres; unfortunately, Mark Lewis-Francis [the Olympic sprinter] was in my age group," he said – his club form this season has been of a very high calibre. "Ugo has fantastic pace and athletic ability," Johnson commented. "This recognition has not come quickly or easily for him; he probably expected it far earlier in his career. But he's done it the right way, through the Premiership route, and I've been very impressed by his maturity since he's been with us."
If the selection was more adventurous than many seasoned Johnson-watchers might have predicted, the manager's competitive mindset was reassuringly familiar. Asked whether he was comfortable with the expectation of the Twickenham crowd, who blithely anticipate a 30-point victory over any touring side from the South Sea islands, he replied: "If you go into a game with a one-point victory in your mind, that's generally the best thing. Attempts to excite the crowd for the sake of it can be a distraction. You can land yourselves in trouble by trying to look sexy."
Whatever England were or were not during Johnson's unprecedentedly successful reign as captain between 1999 and 2003, no one in his or her right mind would have accused them of being sexy. England may have a glamour boy at outside-half in Danny Cipriani and a set of runners who live sporting life in the fast lane, but as far as the manager is concerned, a pug-ugly victory will do nicely.
England team for Pacific Islands (Twickenham, Saturday, 2.30)
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 Sharks), L Mears (Bath), M Stevens (Bath), S Borthwick (Saracens, captain), N Kennedy (London Irish), T Croft (Leicester), T Rees (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton), P Vickery (Wasps), T Palmer (Wasps), J Haskell (Wasps), M Lipman (Bath), H Ellis (Leicester), T Flood (Leicester).Reuse content