Johnson defends England squad over 'foreigners' jibe

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The Independent Online

There was plenty of fuss about the number of "foreigners" in the World Cup training squad named by the England manager, Martin Johnson, yesterday: indeed, some critics were so desperate to play the John Bull card that they bracketed the veteran Wasps lock Simon Shaw, who has been serving the red-rose cause since the time of Noah, with the many recent imports from New Zealand and South Africa on the grounds that he was born and raised in Kenya. Even by recent standards, this was too ludicrous for words.

Johnson, never one to take a half-baked argument seriously, merely raised his eyebrows to the heavens when it was suggested that the promotion of Manu Tuilagi, Mouritz Botha and Thomas Waldrom to positions of preferment alongside Dylan Hartley, Riki Flutey, Hendre Fourie and the rest might send out the wrong messages to bright young "English" players working their way through the lavishly financed academy system. "These people are English players," he insisted. "They're qualified and they're available to us. No one's said anything to me on the subject but I'll report back if they do. I think rugby supporters just want to see us win."

He had a point. Tuilagi, a member of the world's greatest union-playing family, has seen five of his brothers represent their Samoan homeland, but the teenage centre – recently banned for his violent excesses in last month's Premiership semi-final – was educated in England and always stated his intention to commit to his adoptive country.

Botha, the uncapped Saracens lock? He is no different to Fourie and Matt Stevens, his fellow South Africans, in qualifying on residency. Waldrom, the Leicester No 8? Like every New Zealander, he wanted to play for the All Blacks. As the All Blacks didn't want him, English ancestry on his grandmother's side came into play.

If there is a question over Waldrom's sudden appearance, it has nothing to do with his background. Given that Leicester prefer to start their big games with Jordan Crane in the middle of their back row – the same Crane who led England's second-string Saxons side to victory in the Churchill Cup last weekend – why does Johnson see things the other way round? Come to that, what makes Waldrom a better choice than Luke Narraway, the highly skilled Gloucester forward, or Phil Dowson at Northampton?

"We think Thomas carries the ball well and we see him as a smart footballer who brings something different," the manager explained. Should he not have asked Waldrom to prove himself with the Saxons, just for appearances' sake? "He's had a very long season," Johnson responded, unconvincingly.

Apart from the appearance of the young Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples among the 45-strong elect – the group will be cut to a final 30 in late August, shortly before departure for the global gathering in All Black country – there were no major selectorial shocks. A couple of Premiership-winning Saracens, the centre Brad Barritt and Steve Borthwick, can legitimately fume at the lack of justice, while the London Irish hooker David Paice might also feel put-upon, but Johnson was never likely to reject his favourites.

Not even the troublesome ones, like Tuilagi and the high-maintenance London Irish full-back Delon Armitage, both of whom can expect regular reminders on discipline. "We can't have guys getting into trouble when we go down there, either on or off the field," said Johnson, fully aware that the last time England set foot in New Zealand four tourists were accused of sexual misconduct and spent the second half of the trip refusing to help police with their inquiries.

"We know that New Zealand is a goldfish bowl, and when there's a World Cup happening there, it will be a goldfish bowl in a goldfish bowl." Quite.

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