Johnson grapples with the perennial Moody question
Sunday 21 August 2011
At least Martin Johnson is in good company. Neither South Africa, winners of the World Cup in 2007, nor England, the runners-up four years ago, look in the best possible shape as they count down the days to the 2011 tournament.
True, the England squad of 30 which Johnson will confirm tomorrow will travel to New Zealand as European champions, while the Springboks will go as holders of the Tri-Nations wooden spoon despite yesterday's 18-5 defeat of a weakened New Zealand in Port Elizabeth.
But last weekend's19-9 defeat by Wales and the subsequent loss of Danny Care, the Harlequins scrum half, to a toe injury, has only confirmed the suspicions of Johnson's critics that this England team are no world beaters. The manager argues that his players have won five out of seven this calendar year, have beaten Australia home and away in the last 15 months and given tournament favourites New Zealand a run for their money.
Johnson still had decisions to make last week. "You always want to take that one extra player," he said. "The forwards-backs split is a question and, whatever you do, somewhere you'll be thinner than you would like to be. If you take three scrum-halves and three hookers, that's a fifth of your squad in two positions. We won't take any player because he's a good utility player but the good thing for us is that we have already some flexibility."
Johnson knows that at the last two World Cups England did take six players in those positions and even then, in 2003, flew out a fourth half-back in Martyn Wood when injury threatened both Matt Dawson and Kyran Bracken.
He will not want to be have to send for reinforcements in such critical areas. He could, of course, consider Ben Foden as back-up to Ben Youngs and, in all probability, Richard Wigglesworth but it would be harsh to ask Foden to play at No 9 when he has settled at full-back. Care's unfortunate injury means that Joe Simpson, the London Wasp, is back in the frame.
Then there is Lewis Moody, England's captain last year but unfit for most of this. Moody, Youngs, Chris Ashton and Andrew Sheridan are expected to be available against Ireland in Dublin next Saturday, but expectation has not always been enough where Moody is concerned. The knee-ligament strain which forced him out a fortnight ago is progressing but Johnson does not want to name Moody as World Cup captain and then see the player limp out of the opening match, against Argentina, on 14 September.
"If we take Lewis, we are confident he can be there through the tournament," Johnson said. "Any player is at risk of getting hurt. You look round the squad, nearly everyone has injury issues. We'll make the call with the best information we have."
Johnson, too, must decide how he wants to use the game against Ireland – to win it, obviously, but also whether to run the better part of the starting XV against Argentina so that they are, in his own words, battle-hardened.
Two completely different opponents, two different contexts, and it is no consolation to Johnson that Peter de Villiers, South Africa's coach who names his 30 on Tuesday, has mounting problems of his own. He has his Moodys – Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez, Gurthro Steenkamp, none of whom have played enough rugby recently – while he has already lost Juan Smith.
Four years ago, England played France home and away in warm-up games, lost both and failed to score a single try. Yet they emerged as World Cup finalists, which only confirms Johnson's view that August's results are no more than the means to an end; De Villiers will be crossing his fingers – holding thumbs, they say in South Africa – the same holds good for him.
Probable England squad
Full-backs Delon Armitage (London Irish), Ben Foden (Northampton)
Wings Chris Ashton (Northampton), Mark Cueto (Sale Sharks), Matt Banahan (Bath)
Centres Shontayne Hape (London Irish), Mike Tindall (Gloucester), Manu Tuilagi (Leicester)
Fly-halves Toby Flood (Leicester), Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon)
Scrum-halves Joe Simpson (London Wasps), Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens), Ben Youngs (Leicester)
Props Dan Cole (Leicester), Alex Corbisiero (London Irish), Andrew Sheridan (Sale Sharks), Matt Stevens (Saracens), David Wilson (Bath)
Hookers Dylan Hartley (Northampton), Lee Mears (Bath), Steve Thompson (London Wasps)
Locks Louis Deacon (Leicester), Courtney Lawes (Northampton), Tom Palmer (Stade Français), Simon Shaw (London Wasps)
Back row Tom Croft (Leicester), Nick Easter (Harlequins), James Haskell (Ricoh Black Rams), Lewis Moody (Bath), Tom Wood (Northampton).
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