Johnson ignores clamour for policy change at No 10

England manager brushes aside criticism of Wilkinson to pick same side for Irish Test
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The Independent Online

Outside-halves? They're more trouble than they're worth. Just when Martin Johnson, the England manager, wanted to celebrate a little selectorial continuity ahead of this weekend's pivotal Six Nations meeting with Ireland at Twickenham – for once, he felt able to name an unchanged side – the contrasting but interrelated issues of Jonny Wilkinson and Danny Cipriani forced their way to the top of the red-rose agenda. Unsurprisingly, he was a little tetchy as a result.

On the subject of Wilkinson, who remains at No 10 despite the growing feeling that England would be better off without him, Johnson was particularly short. "I don't think I have to sit here and defend what Jonny does," he said. On the subject of Cipriani, who will soon leave for Australia despite the commonly-held view that England would stand a far better chance of playing some rugby if he stayed, he was equally pointed. Asked if he felt he had drawn the best from the most lavishly gifted of the country's midfield playmakers, the manager replied: "I don't know the answer to that, but all you can do is be honest with the guy. I've probably spent more time talking to Danny than any other player in the squad. He's made his choice and I wish him well." Ouch.

Johnson reiterated his view, forcefully expressed in the immediate aftermath of the attacking misfire against Italy 10 days ago, that if England were punching far below their weight with ball in hand, it had precious little to do with Wilkinson's ultra-conservative approach. "It's a collective thing," he insisted. "The criticism aimed at him has been neither right nor fair, and I've found it strange and disappointing." Was it wrong, then, for some of those who played alongside Wilkinson in the World Cup-winning side of 2003 to suggest that the key decisions were habitually made by other people? "I never made any decisions either," said Johnson, who led that side. "They were all made by Matt Dawson." Double ouch.

While Brian Smith, the attack coach, was predicting that Cipriani's game would "grow" as a result of his move to Melbourne – Smith is, after all, an Australian – the much put-upon Wilkinson could be heard unpacking his own state of mind in that uniquely self-analytical way of his. "Unless some of you guys really go for it, I'm always my own harshest critic," he said, the consciousness streaming forth in time-honoured fashion. "What people write about me can't be for my benefit: that would be a waste of paper. I'm the one who deals with what's in my head and I'm at the same level of dissatisfaction as I've been throughout my career. It remains undiminished. I'll retire as the game's most dissatisfied player and I'm happy for it to be that way because it's what keeps me going."

He will need to go some this weekend if the clamour for England to pick someone else – anyone else – in the principal playmaking position is not to increase in volume. The fact that Ireland have made the decision England appear so reluctant to make – Ronan O'Gara, who scores Test points in the same kind of volume as Wilkinson and is equally one-dimensional, will make way for the younger, more free-spirited Jonathan Sexton on Saturday – can only heighten the tension. Johnson may not think there is much of a debate to be had on the subject, but if things go pear-shaped at Twickenham, he will quickly discover that others are the judge of what is and is not a topic for discussion.

The most serious talking on selection after the disappointing effort in Rome concerned the make up of the front-row unit. Dylan Hartley's place at hooker was never under threat from the more experienced Steve Thompson – indeed, Johnson has demoted his old team-mate from the bench in favour of the rejuvenated Lee Mears of Bath – but both prop positions were talked through. The upshot? As you were, chaps. Tim Payne, heavily criticised for his recent loose-head displays at Wasps, has held off the challenge of Matt Mullan, the newcomer from Worcester, while Dan Cole of Leicester stays in situ on the tight head despite David Wilson's return to full fitness. Wilson played with real fire for Bath last weekend, but the coaches believe Cole has the harder edge to his game.

Those who automatically expect England to dominate the set-piece contest with the Irish were advised to think again by Graham Rowntree, the red-rose scrum coach. "I'd love it if we do dominate and win the game as a result," he said, "but I'm not being dragged into criticising Ireland. I think they have a very fine set-piece hooker in Rory Best, while John Hayes will win his 100th cap this weekend. You don't get to 100 by being an average player."

By restricting his tinkerings to the bench – Mears for Thompson, the Wasps flanker Joe Worsley for Steffon Armitage of London Irish, Ben Foden of Northampton in the mix once again, reflecting a more even split between forwards and backs – Johnson has stuck by his guns in the face of considerable public hostility. Had the public reaction to the Rome performance annoyed him? "You have bad days when it gets to you, and good days when you think 'what do they know anyway?'" he responded. "Actually, there are times when this sort of criticism is no bad thing. It puts people on edge."

England v Ireland: Twickenham line-ups

England

D Armitage (L Irish)

M Cueto (Sale Sharks)

M Tait (Sale Sharks)

R Flutey (Brive)

U Monye (Harlequins)

J Wilkinson (Toulon)

D Care (Harlequins)

T Payne (Wasps)

D Hartley (Northampton)

D Cole (Leicester)

S Shaw (Wasps)

S Borthwick (Saracens, c)

J Haskell (St Français)

L Moody (Leicester)

N Easter (Harlequins).

Replacements L Mears (Bath), D Wilson (Bath), L Deacon (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), P Hodgson (L Irish), T Flood (Leicester), B Foden (Northampton).

Ireland

G Murphy (Leicester)

T Bowe (Ospreys)

B O'Driscoll (Leinster, c)

G D'Arcy (Leinster)

K Earls (Munster)

J Sexton (Leinster)

T O'Leary (Munster)

C Healy (Leinster)

R Best (Ulster)

J Hayes (Munster)

D O'Callaghan (Munster)

P O'Connell (Munster)

S Ferris (Ulster)

D Wallace (Munster)

J Heaslip (Leinster)

Replacements S Cronin (Connacht), T Buckley (Munster), L Cullen, S Jennings, E Reddan (all Leinster), R O'Gara (Munster), A Trimble (Ulster).

Referee M Lawrence (South Africa)

Kick-off Saturday, 4pm; TV BBC1

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