Johnson keeps faith in captain Borthwick

England manager takes safe option to retain leader as Cole and Youngs called up
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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson, the England manager, took the only sensible decision open to him last night by reappointing the Saracens second-row forward Steve Borthwick as captain for the opening Six Nations Championship fixture with Wales at Twickenham on Saturday week. Borthwick, quite possibly the hardest-working skipper in international rugby, was informed as the squad gathered in Portugal for five days of hard training ahead of a game they dare not lose.

Johnson made a number of other calls, most of them equally sensible. Dan Cole, the brilliant young tight-head prop from Leicester, was promoted from the second-string Saxons squad as cover for his injured club-mate Julian White, who has not started a match since twanging a hamstring in October. A fellow product of the Leicester academy, the scrum-half Ben Youngs, joined Cole in the Algarve, largely as a consequence of continuing concerns over the fitness of yet another Welford Roader, the Lions tourist Harry Ellis. However, Youngs was scheduled to fly home tonight to start preparations for the Saxons' difficult match against Ireland A in Bath on Sunday.

Other players added to the 32-man elite squad include the Worcester loose-head prop Matt Mullan, the Harlequins blind-side flanker Chris Robshaw and the Wasps No 8 Dan Ward-Smith. Injuries affecting two current England back-row regulars in Tom Croft and Joe Worsley explain the appearances of the London-based forwards, while Mullan comes in for the Sale front-rower Andrew Sheridan, who is more crocked than anyone.

It may well be that the wide-roaming Mullan, chosen ahead of the vastly more experienced Bath prop David Flatman, will be given a chance at some point during the Six Nations, especially if the Test incumbent Tim Payne fails to find a way of disengaging from reverse gear. The Wasps loose head has had all manner of indignities inflicted upon him in recent weeks, not least by Cole during Leicester's Premiership victory over their great rivals earlier this month. Like most props, Payne is thicker-skinned than the average armadillo. Even so, his confidence must be at rock bottom.

Borthwick's confidence levels may also be a notch down, thanks to a concerted campaign in some parts of the media to drive him out of the team. However, Johnson recognises that the captain turned in the best performance of his Test career against the All Blacks in November and also understands the importance of the line-out – Borthwick's area of speciality – against Wales. Would it have been remotely intelligent to throw the Northampton rookie Courtney Lawes into the molten heat of a must-win match against the Red Dragons and ask him to run one of the major phases of the contest into the bargain? Clearly not, especially as England's second most influential line-operator, the spring-heeled Croft, is temporarily lost to them.

There might have been more pressure on Borthwick had the exiled lock Tom Palmer been included in Johnson's original squad, but the Stade Français player was ignored. He has a chance to begin his England rehabilitation this week, however, having been invited to train with the party for a couple of days. Sadly, there was less for James Haskell to celebrate. Haskell, who joined Palmer in leaving Wasps for Paris last summer, picked up a knee injury during his club's Heineken Cup defeat in Edinburgh on Saturday and is awaiting further medical assessment.

Meanwhile, Saracens confirmed that Matt Stevens, the disgraced England prop currently serving a two-year ban for drug abuse, will be joining them this time next year, immediately he finishes paying his debt to the game. Stevens handed in his cards at Bath after testing positive for cocaine, but the West Countrymen harboured hopes of re-signing him, especially as he has business interests in the city. Unfortunately for them, Saracens now have his signature on the all-important piece of paper.

"This is a massively significant signing for us," said Brendan Venter, Saracens' director of rugby. "It demonstrates the scale of our ambition and shows that top players recognise us as a well-run club with a bright future."

Stevens can take no active part in rugby until mid-January 2011 and Saracens confirmed that the naturalised South African "will not train with the squad or be integrated within the club in any way until his ban has expired."