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Johnson gambles with England squad heavy on bulk, light on skill

Coach selects five props in World Cup party, leaves Flutey out and opts for only two wings. Chris Hewett assesses the group

Martin Johnson spent much of yesterday explaining that when it comes to World Cup selection – never a straightforward process, thanks to the 30-man squad limit imposed by the International Rugby Board – it is essential to "think on your feet" rather than stick to preconceived ideas. The trouble for the manager is that some of his key players, from Ben Youngs at scrum-half to Andrew Sheridan and Lewis Moody up front, might as well be flat on their backs. Certainly, there is no guarantee that any of them will be fit to face Argentina in a little under three weeks.

There can be no hiding from the fact that this is a serious issue. Moody, confirmed as captain for the tournament despite the complex problem with ligaments in his right knee that has restricted him to approximately nine hours of meaningful activity in eight months, is not available for the final warm-up match with Ireland in Dublin on Saturday afternoon. Youngs and Sheridan are similarly off-limits, despite the unfailingly optimistic bulletins regarding their respective knee and shoulder injuries. Johnson tried to mask his concern, but only a blind man could have failed to see through the disguise.

Reminded of Clive Woodward's words before the triumphant World Cup campaign in 2003 – "If you're not fit, you don't travel," he declared, more than once – the current manager bit back sharply. "Clive was able to say that with everyone fit and on the plane," said Johnson, who captained that side. "Believe me, if certain people had been carrying a niggle, they would still have been on the plane. Would we be making this call for every player? Of course we wouldn't. But in some cases, you're happy to trust the medics."

Moody, a glass half-full merchant if ever there was one, dismissed all suggestions that he might not be ready for what is certain to be a highly physical engagement with the South Americans in Dunedin on 10 September. "My rehab is going well, the brace is off my knee and I'm just getting back to some straight-line running," he said. "The physios are having to hold me back, which is a good thing, and I'm targeting that first game against Argentina. My initial reaction when I damaged the knee at Twickenham a couple of weeks ago was 'oh no, not again', but I wasn't in too much pain. All those pictures of me grimacing were actually pictures of me swearing in frustration."

With Youngs incapacitated after summer surgery and Danny Care of Harlequins out for the duration, Johnson had little option but to abandon tentative plans to take two scrum-halves to New Zealand and add the uncapped Wasps player Joe Simpson to the roster. Similarly, the latest of Sheridan's many orthopaedic traumas persuaded him to take a full hand of five props, rather than chance his arm with four.

All of this left him with some hard choices, the hardest of all concerning another Wasps back, Riki Flutey. "Whatever you do, you leave yourself slightly thin," Johnson said. "In this case, we felt we'd be better able to cover the midfield positions if injuries kicked in than provide cover elsewhere. Riki has done nothing wrong and if you're asking whether I'd like to see him on the flight, then the answer is 'yes'. I'm sure he's bitterly disappointed at missing out, but he's taken it very well."

Not for the first time – try the umpteenth instead – Johnson found himself defending his decision to back the New Zealand-born midfielder Shontayne Hape as his go-to inside centre: an unusually sensitive topic on this occasion, given the rejection of Flutey. "I find myself saying this after every Test," he complained, "but Shontayne is an underestimated player. He's very strong defensively, he's a smart footballer, he can off-load. Because he doesn't do things that make people think 'wow', he gets a lot of criticism. But the way our team works, he's the man who gives other people the chance to do the 'wow' things. And anyway, I'd rather win ugly that lose pretty any day of the week."

For all that, this squad looks disconcertingly one-dimensional in midfield – piano shifters a-plenty, precious few piano players – and light on numbers in the wide areas, where only two full-time wings, Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto, have survived the cull. Ashton and Cueto are the least of the manager's problems, especially as England should remain in the opposite half of the draw to the All Blacks, whose wing resources are the envy of every team in the world. Even so, Johnson is one twisted ankle away from real strife, and as Ashton is currently recovering from precisely that kind of injury, the risks are uncomfortably evident.

"By taking five props, I'll look like a genius if we have injuries in the front row," the manager continued. "If we get a lot of injuries at, say, inside centre..." He had no need to complete the sentence, for the whole of English rugby knows how he will look in that eventuality.

Johnson will wait until Thursday before naming his side for the Dublin game, which promises to be a neurotic affair, full of fear and anxiety. Yesterday, he could be heard rowing back on his stated intention to field something approaching a full-strength side – the kind of side he had long envisaged taking the pitch against the Pumas. "Some people need to play," he conceded, tacitly admitting that some of his Six Nations regulars might find themselves kicking their heels.

Simpson certainly needs game time, given his current status as a Test virgin, while the 37-year-old Simon Shaw, who is anything but, would appreciate the chance to build on the hour he was given in the first of the two preparatory meetings with Wales. There again, there are lots of people heading for the World Cup with precious little competitive activity behind them. It is a moment for Johnson to live up to his words and think on his feet.