Johnson labours to find the right midfield mix

Experimentation? Martin Johnson never had the inclination, and now he doesn't have the time either. The seventh World Cup is less than a year away, so the prospects of the manager ripping things up and starting again at this stage in the game are on the distant side of remote. The vast majority of those who beat Australia last time out, in Sydney back in June, will take the field against the All Blacks at Twickenham on Saturday, and unless something really drastic happens – a defeat of 25 points or more – they are likely to stay together for the meeting with the Wallabies a week later.

Andrew Sheridan of Sale will replace the jettisoned Tim Payne at loose-head prop, and there might have been further decisions to make had two Wasps, the centre Riki Flutey and the lock Simon Shaw, played a full part in training over the last eight days. But as both men are struggling with calf injuries, the red-rose staff were always likely to stick with Mike Tindall and Shontayne Hape in midfield, together with the incumbent engine room partnership of Tom Palmer and Courtney Lawes.

Hape has less of a kicking game than the World Cup-winning maestro Will Greenwood, who put boot to ball about twice a season, and is even less of a rugby genius. But at 6ft 2in and 16st-plus, the New Zealand-born player is substantial, and in the opinion of Johnson and his coaching colleagues, that's the main thing. They look at the other big beasts in the international jungle – Ma'a Nonu of the All Blacks, Jean de Villiers of South Africa, Jamie Roberts of Wales – and see a trio of outsized, non-kicking match-winners. "We've wanted one of those for ages, and now we've got one," they say.

An alternative might have been to use Tindall, a career 13, in the 12 position, where Gloucester currently play him in order to accommodate the promising Henry Trinder. That would have allowed Hape to relocate to outside centre, which is where he turns out for Bath – confusing, isn't it? - or opened up a space for Delon Armitage of London Irish, who is very much back in the selectors' good books after a miserable run of form last season. But Armitage wears the No 13 shirt about as often as the Chancellor of the Exchequer attends meetings of the Young Trotskyists. The notion of him pitting his wits against the brilliant Conrad Smith this weekend was not a reassuring one.

Midfield is a desperate problem, for even if Hape and Tindall can stack up physically against the best the incoming tourists have to offer, not even close family members would suggest they can live with them for pace. Yet Johnson and company seem to have decided that the only way to beat the southern hemisphere nations is to play the southern hemisphere way. It is a risky business, for sure: this season's Tri-Nations tournament produced almost six tries a game – an increase on the previous year of precisely 100 per cent – and it takes an imaginative leap of serious proportions to see England surviving in such an environment.

Various people were called in yesterday as "injury cover": England-speak for training-field extras, required because some members of the squad were suffering from the effects of the weekend Premiership matches. Lewis Moody, the captain, had 10 stitches in his head, while another back-rower, Joe Worsley of Wasps, had a dozen in a facial wound. Worsley's clubmate, the centre Dominic Waldouck, was suffering from neck trouble, as was Matt Banahan of Bath. As a result, the Northampton flankers Tom Wood and Phil Dowson, were summoned, as was the Leicester centre Anthony Allen and the Gloucester back James Simpson-Daniel.

Whatever the extent of England's problems, Wales were suffering more. The Scarlets centre Jonathan Davies was the latest to withdraw from the squad, giving best yesterday to the ankle problem he picked up last week, and thanks to a range of issues in the back row, the head coach Warren Gatland has summoned, as if from nowhere, the 19-year-old Newport Gwent Dragons flanker Toby Faletau, who ancestry is significantly more Tongan than it is Welsh.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future