Johnson keeps Borthwick as leading man

England manager puts faith in captain despite 'unprecedented' criticism
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The Independent Online

Steve Borthwick found himself on the painful end of some ferocious criticism before Christmas as he presided over a series of England defeats that ranged from the embarrassing to the record-breaking – "unprecedented" criticism, as the manager Martin Johnson put it yesterday – but the line-out specialist from Saracens still has his supporters, most notably Johnson himself. Borthwick will lead the national team when they open their Six Nations campaign against Italy next month and the indications are that he will remain in place for a while yet.

Johnson could have switched captains had he so wished, especially after deciding to recall Mike Tindall to the elite squad as one of the five form-driven changes permitted to him under the agreement between the Rugby Football Union and the Premiership clubs. The centre has more than 50 caps to his name, not to mention a World Cup winners' medal, and has captained Gloucester with considerable gusto this season. But unless something calamitous happens to the incumbent, Tindall will be asked to support him rather than succeed him.

Borthwick has not been reappointed under any long-term arrangement – "No one is guaranteed a place in the starting team, so the captaincy will be decided on a game-by-game basis," Johnson pronounced – but if he plays as well against Italy this term as he did last, when he single-handedly saved England's bacon, he will almost certainly make it through to the end of the tournament.

"I thought Steve did an outstanding job for us in the autumn," the manager said when asked if he had considered a change of leadership. "Much of it was done behind closed doors, in very difficult circumstances. Captaincy is easy when you're playing in a winning side, or when you're surrounded by experienced players. Steve didn't have either of those advantages. I thought the criticism he received was unfair."

Tindall's move up from the second-string Saxons squad, to which he was condemned following a below-par contribution on last summer's tour of New Zealand, was widely anticipated, although some felt Jamie Noon of Newcastle might be the man to make way, rather than Dan Hipkiss of Leicester. The other promotions saw Olly Morgan of Gloucester, Mark Cueto of Sale and Ben Foden of Northampton move up, along with two Harlequins who featured during the autumn after being drafted in as injury cover: the wing Ugo Monye and the No 8 Nick Easter. Monye replaces the eternally unfit James Simpson-Daniel, while Jordan Crane makes way for Easter.

Of the fallers, Olly Barkley is by some distance the unluckiest. Many and varied England managerial regimes have been wondering what to do with the goal-kicking midfielder ever since Clive Woodward picked him, sight unseen, for the three-Test tour of North America in 2001. Fiercely opinionated, Barkley has been known to get up the noses of coaches who can too easily take their revenge in selection. But he has rarely let England down, despite being pushed from outside-half to inside centre and back again, and if he fails to recover from this latest snub, the red-rose game will be the worse for it.

Oddly, Johnson retained two first-choice members of the Wasps pack, the lock Tom Palmer and the flanker Tom Rees, despite knowing full well that their current injury problems will keep them sidelined beyond the end of the Six Nations. The manager explained his decision by identifying both as "core members" of his squad and added that before the pre-tournament training camp in Portugal, which begins on Sunday week, he would pull in a couple of reinforcements. The Bath captain Michael Lipman, who played on the open-side flank against the All Blacks last time out, is confidently expected to be one of these.

The Saxons party was also revisited. Two more in-form Harlequins, the unusually substantial centre Jordan Turner-Hall and the hugely energetic flanker Chris Robshaw, were whistled up, as were two uncapped front-rowers – Matt Mullan of Worcester, Rob Webber of Wasps – and the Northampton outside-half Stephen Myler, who replaced Andy Goode. Dear old Julian White, who semi-retired himself from representative rugby by withdrawing from the Test squad before the 2007 World Cup, is also back, just in case Phil Vickery or Matt Stevens breaks a fingernail.

Down the road in another part of Twickenham, the chairmen and shareholders of the 12 Premiership clubs met in private session to decide on their response to the game's new economic realities, as defined by the credit crunch. All sorts of ideas were on the table, from deeply contentious notions of expanding or reducing the size of the top division to merely complex ones concerning recalibrations of the salary cap. When push came to shove, the board members decided to stick with a 12-team Premiership – a blessed relief for all right-thinking members of the rugby community – while freezing the cap at its current level of £4m for the next two seasons, with existing playing contracts being honoured.

Other, as yet unspecified cost-cutting measures will be implanted, however, and the chairmen will push for a greater concentration of fixtures during "strong" periods for club rugby, such as Christmas and New Year.

Johno's boys: England squad for the Six Nations

32-man England senior elite squad:


D Armitage (London Irish), D Care (Harlequins), D Cipriani (Wasps), M Cueto (Sale), H Ellis, T Flood (both Leicester), B Foden (Northampton), R Flutey (Wasps), S Geraghty (L Irish), U Monye (Harlequins), O Morgan (Gloucester), J Noon (Newcastle), P Sackey (Wasps), M Tait (Sale), M Tindall (Gloucester).


S Borthwick (Saracens), G Chuter, T Croft (both Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), J Haskell (Wasps), N Kennedy (L Irish), L Mears (Bath), L Moody (Leicester), L Narraway (Gloucester), T Palmer, T Payne, T Rees, S Shaw (all Wasps), A Sheridan (Sale), M Stevens (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps).

England's Six Nations fixtures

Sat 7 Feb Italy (h); Sat 14 Feb Wales (a); Sat 28 Feb Ireland (a); Sun 15 Mar France (h); Sat 21 Mar Scotland (h).