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.
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