Johnson finally turns attention to missing bite

Tait, Flutey and Armitage picked in most attacking side of England manager's reign
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The Independent Online

Trust Martin Johnson, not so much risk-averse as risk-petrified, to pour cold water on it. "We're going to have to defend as well," pointed out the World Cup-winning captain when asked if he had just picked the most potent England line-up of his slightly less successful tenure as manager. It was a predictable response, but by naming Delon Armitage, Riki Flutey and the criminally ignored Mathew Tait in the same back division, there was no denying that Johnson had finally made a bold declaration of attacking intent, almost two years after succeeding Brian Ashton, the most attack-minded coach of his generation.

Brian Smith, the man directly responsible for what followers of American Football would call the red-rose "offence", was particularly animated at the thought of England testing Wales in open field – traditionally an area of Welsh strength – in the Six Nations opener at Twickenham this weekend. Did this mean he had won some important arguments in selection? No one was letting on. Suffice to say he looked infinitely more bullish yesterday than he had during the autumn, when, with his players showing all the cutting edge of an elderly haddock, he looked as though he might have had more fun lancing boils.

"It's a big thing for us having Riki back from injury," Smith said of the New Zealand-born inside centre. "He's another pair of eyes in midfield." And Tait? Why had it taken so long for the penny to drop? "You have to remember that for much of last year, Mathew wasn't playing club rugby out outside centre. He's been a jack of all trades and I guess he's suffered for it. I know from personal experience that it happens. But he's settled now, his form has been well above the average and he's a bloody handful for any defence."

Some of those who have worked with Tait in the past question his temperament. There has never been any suspicion over his ability to perform under pressure, but the way his critics tell it, he finds it difficult to break out of a negative mindset when things are going badly. Smith rejected this notion out of hand. "I haven't heard that criticism and I don't recognise it in my dealings with Mathew," said the Australian. "In my experience, he's very much a team man. When he hasn't made the starting line-up, he's still added juice to the group. He's a selfless individual and a tough kid."

Of course, England could field a back-line featuring four saints and three angels and still find themselves struggling to do good things in the absence of quality possession. For all the excitement generated by a new-look three-quarter line and the reappearance of the blindingly quick Danny Care at scrum-half, there was a whiff of concern surrounding the heavy mob. The continuing absence of Andrew Sheridan means Tim Payne, wholly out of form with Wasps, continues at loose-head prop, and he will be the most experienced member of a grass-green front row charged with subduing the Lions trio of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones.

Johnson mounted a fierce defence of Payne. "He's never let us down in an England shirt," said the manager. "You can't blame a team's scrummaging problems on one man. It's a collective effort." All the same, did he not agree that for the first time in perhaps a quarter of a century, a Welsh team would travel to London confident of winning a game through their tight-forward unit, rather than thinking of ways to minimise the damage England would inflict in that department? "These things go in cycles," he responded. "There was a time when people like Jenkins and Jones were young players learning the ropes in Test rugby. Now, we have some young, inexperienced players in those roles. The exciting thing for us is that we have some competition for places."

Matt Mullan, the uncapped Worcester prop, was mentioned in dispatches despite being left out of the match-day squad – he performed extremely well at last week's training camp in Portugal and is considered by the back-room team to be "almost ready" – while Dan Cole of Leicester, the form tight-head specialist in the Premiership, has a seat on the bench. This is no more than the Midlander deserves. Last month, he gave Payne the mother and father of a roasting in a league game at Welford Road.

In all, there are eight changes, two of them positional, from the side that faced the All Blacks last time out. Perhaps the most significant of these are Care's leapfrogging of Paul Hodgson at half-back – "They're very different players," Johnson explained, "and you get what you get with both of them" – and the return from injury of the Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter, which allows James Haskell to return to his favourite role on the blind-side flank. "Nick's leadership is vital for us," the manager said.

Not, of course, as vital as victory at any cost. "It doesn't matter who's done what," Johnson acknowledged. "This is England-Wales and it's a massive game for both sides." No room for excuses, then? "When have we ever made excuses, or tried to hide behind them?" he asked, a trifle irked. "We always welcome constructive criticism." Then, after a brief pause, he added: "Some of that criticism has been accurate. Some of it has been so far off the mark, it makes me smile."

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