Johnson driven to blood red-rose rookies

Tait and Foden among those discarded for Test with Australia as only five seasoned England internationals survive the cut
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The Independent Online

There are players associated with the England squad who must be wondering what they have to do to get themselves an even break – as usual, the outstanding Sale centre Mathew Tait is foremost amongst them – but there will at least be signs of a fresh side taking shape when Martin Johnson's team take on the Wallabies at Twickenham this weekend. Two new players, the France-based midfielder Ayoola Erinle and the Northampton lock Courtney Lawes, will be in the squad, along with three others who have only half-a-dozen caps between them.

When Johnson, about to embark on his second autumn series as national manager, placed 10 of his squad in the "not wanted on voyage" category yesterday, there were some big names left on the quayside. They included a World Cup winner in Ben Kay, a Lions Test flanker in Joe Worsley and one of English rugby's brighter young things in Ben Foden. But it was Tait's failure to make the cut, either as an outside centre or a wing, that set the tongues wagging. A few weeks ago, no less an authority than Jason Robinson could be heard singing his praises as the most dangerous attacking runner in the country. Apparently, Johnson sees it differently.

The manager's 22-man party for this devilishly difficult game against the third-ranked side in the world – England are down among the dead men in seventh – can be split into three very unequal sections. Steve Borthwick, Mark Cueto, Lewis Moody, Steve Thompson and some bloke by the name of Wilkinson are hardened, heavily-capped international players, although the hooker Thompson has declared himself retired and resurrected since making his last full appearance four years ago. The likes of Andy Goode and James Haskell are semi-experienced, while the remaining majority are Test rookies.

Even in this latter category, some are rookier than others. The greenest of them, with the exception of Erinle and Lawes, are the Bath wing, Matt Banahan, his club colleague, the tight-head prop, David Wilson; and the Leicester No 8, Jordan Crane. This trio have two caps apiece, while the Northampton centre Shane Geraghty has three.

By releasing Foden back to Northampton, the manager indicated that Ugo Monye, a try-scoring Lions Test wing during the summer, would fill the full-back hole left by the injured Delon Armitage. A second Armitage, the flanker Steffon, was also packed off home – a clear sign that the orthopaedically challenged Moody will perform the breakaway role on Saturday, just a few weeks into his latest comeback.

John Wells, the forwards coach, agreed yesterday that the rash of recent injuries had effectively driven the selectors into fast-tracking candidates for the 2011 World Cup squad into the team. "We'd identified certain players with a view to controlling the pace of their introduction to the international game, but we're now in a position of asking them to jump straight in there," said the former Leicester flanker. "It could work well for us, because some of those people who would probably have played in this game had they been fit might not make it to 2011."

Johnson is confident that Dylan Hartley, one of those who can be relied upon to bring something different to the England mix, will be fit to start at hooker. The Northampton captain has been suffering from hamstring trouble, but he played a full part in yesterday's training run in Surrey – a session the manager described as "intense" – and was expected to do likewise today.

"We are in no doubt as to the severity of the challenge ahead," Johnson said. "Australia have not been winning matches, but they have played New Zealand four times and South Africa three times in recent months. Those are the top two teams in the world rankings and wins against sides of that quality are always hard to come by. The Wallabies will be battle-hardened and are used to playing at the very highest level. Also, they have led a lot of games at half-time. I think their difficulty in closing out matches is down to the fact that they have a lot of young players in there."

Although he went out of his way to play down the significance of his own past – "I've spent half my adult life in the United Kingdom and I'm out of touch with this generation of Wallabies," he insisted – the attack coach Brian Smith, born in New South Wales and a Wallaby himself, will be expected to provide an inside track on the Australian thinking ahead of this week's contest. However, any notion that the tourists will be driven by any old-fashioned loathing of the English cut no ice with him.

"Pommy-bashing? That's ancient history," Smith said. "There is a great deal of respect in Australia for English rugby. You have to remember that in the 2003 World Cup final, England shoved it down Australian throats on their home soil." He was much happier talking about the potential effect of Jonny Wilkinson's return to the red-rose midfield, pointing out that Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach, had been talking about the subject himself. "That has to be a good thing from our point of view," he remarked.

Wilkinson will definitely start at No 10 this weekend, having been out of England circulation since the spring of last year. Geraghty will play at inside centre, giving the team a southern hemisphere-style "five-eighths" axis in midfield.

Greenest shoots: Best newcomers

Ayoola Erinle (Biarritz)

A veritable tank of a centre, Erinle has always possessed the size to make a difference. During his lengthy spell at Wasps, however, the 29-year-old did not possess the hands, or the awareness, to go with it. But time spent at Leicester was of value and his move to Biarritz has paid handsome dividends.

David Wilson (Bath)

There was a time when England were blessed with a bank of tight-head props capable of anchoring the red-rose scrum against all-comers, but with Julian White and Phil Vickery on their last legs, the search is on for a long-term successor. Wilson, 24, lovingly tended through the academy system, has first shot.

Courtney Lawes (Northampton)

Good judges are unusually excited about the athletic 20-year-old lock, who gave the hard-bitten Munster duo of Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell a hurry-up last month. Is he fit and strong enough? England appear to think so, for the 6ft 7in titan is virtually certain to be involved at some point.

England squad to face Australia

Back three: Matt Banahan (Bath), Mark Cueto (Sale), Ugo Monye (Harlequins).

Centres: Ayoola Erinle (Biarritz), Shane Geraghty (Northampton), Dan Hipkiss (Leicester).

Outside-halves: Andy Goode (Brive), Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon).

Scrum-halves: Danny Care (Quins), Paul Hodgson (London Irish).

Loose-head prop: Tim Payne (Wasps).

Tight-head props: Duncan Bell (Bath), David Wilson (Bath).

Hookers: Dylan Hartley (N'ton), Steve Thompson (Brive).

Locks: Steve Borthwick (Saracens, capt), Louis Deacon (Leic), Courtney Lawes (N'ton).

Loose forwards: Tom Croft (Leic), Jordan Crane (Leic), James Haskell (Stade Francais), Lewis Moody (Leic).

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