Martin Johnson has been picking England squads twice a year every year since the late spring of 2008. Some of them have been distinctly average, others not quite that good, but since the curate's egg trip to Australia and New Zealand last summer there have been signs of the national manager finally getting a majority of his ducks in something resembling a row. Today, there will be no room for ifs, buts or maybes. The 32-man elite party named at Twickenham will to all intents and purposes form the body of the slightly smaller group that heads to New Zealand for the World Cup in seven months' time.
Unfortunately for the man who lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy back in 2003, he will have to make more adjustments to his semi-successful autumn squad than he initially hoped. Courtney Lawes, the young lock widely judged to be England's best player during the four-Test series in November, will miss the forthcoming Six Nations Championship after mangling a knee ligament while on Premiership duty for Northampton four days ago. Given that Tom Croft, the Leicester flanker, is also out of commission after being smashed all over Twickenham by the Springboks in the final international fixture of last year, Johnson heads into this tournament without his two most dynamic back-five athletes.
"Courtney will not need an operation, but will probably be out for around three months," reported Jim Mallinder, the Northampton director of rugby, yesterday. "It's a big blow, for he played really well for England in the autumn and has been doing the same for us, but that's sport. Yet while this is a disappointment for him in the short term, he's played a lot of rugby recently and maybe a short break won't do him too much harm. England have a good deal ahead of them before the World Cup, so this mightn't be a bad thing."
Johnson's decision-making in the crucial second-row area – England being England, they rarely achieve much in the international arena without a top-calibre pairing in the engine room of the scrum – is complicated by the fact that Dave Attwood, the Gloucester lock, is in the early stages of a nine-week suspension for booting the La Rochelle prop Petrisor Toderasc in the face during an Amlin Challenge Cup match. Attwood will be available for the third round of Six Nations matches, but is likely to be short of match hardness and therefore of minimal use until the final two fixtures, against Scotland and Ireland in mid-March.
There are few indications that the manager is interested in recalling Steve Borthwick, his long-time captain. (Having gone to the barricades in Borthwick's defence when the world and his maiden aunt were clamouring for his head, Johnson reached for the axe while the Saracens player was injured and therefore in no position to make a case for himself on the field. Harsh? You could say.)
It seems far more likely that Louis Deacon, well liked by a Leicester dominated red-rose hierarchy who have a soft spot for no-frills, no-nonsense, tractor-like tight forwards and love them even more when they play their rugby at Welford Road, will be drafted into the senior squad, and if Johnson feels the need to replace Attwood, there could be a summoning for the uncapped George Skivington, who also earns his corn up there in Tiger country.
Even though a second Northampton player who did himself a mischief during last weekend's Midlands derby, the wing Chris Ashton, is expected to recover from his thigh injury in good time for the Six Nations opener in Cardiff, it is by no means certain that tinkerings with the current elite squad will be restricted to the second-row fraternity. Dominic Waldouck, the Wasps centre, has been conspicuous by his absence in recent weeks and will do well to hold his place, especially as James Simpson-Daniel is back to his scintillating best at Gloucester. There have also been strong showings by the Leicester midfielder Anthony Allen of late, and it would be reassuring for every normal-sized rugby player in England to see him back in the Test running.
There is also a strong case for promoting one of a clutch of young loose-head props – Joe Marler of Harlequins, for instance, or Alex Corbisiero of London Irish – ahead of Tim Payne, the incumbent deputy to Andrew Sheridan. In addition, Johnson and his colleagues might consider taking a look at the Northampton flanker Tom Wood, although another Quin, the Trojan-like Chris Robshaw, will probably get the nod in Croft's absence. If he does, few will raise the matter with their local MP. Robshaw is just about the hardest-working individual in Premiership rugby.
When England won the World Cup, they had the advantage of vast experience – a level of hardened Test know-how far in advance of anything Johnson's charges will take to the global party in September. But the man in charge of that great red-rose side, the then unknighted Clive Woodward, was not entirely sure of all things selectorial as that year's Six Nations unfolded. Few remember now that he played Charlie Hodgson in the centre, had yet to reintroduce Josh Lewsey into his back three and was still agonising over the rival claims of Matt Dawson and Kyran Bracken to the scrum-half position. In fact, he used no fewer than 33 players in those five games, including a handful lost in the most impenetrable mists of memory: Robbie Morris and Michael Worsley up front, Ollie Smith and Phil Christophers behind.
Come the summer tour to New Zealand and Australia, though, Woodward was very clear in his thinking. Can we expect the same clarity from Johnson? Today, when the old Leicester hard-head reveals his hand for the most important Six Nations since his own retirement as a player, it will be possible to make a firm judgement. There will not be much in the way of change, but the manager's manoeuvrings around the edges could define him as a picker and chooser of men.
State of the nations: How England's opponents are shaping up
The reigning Grand Slam champions are still trying to fathom how they leaked 59 points to the Wallabies before Christmas, a defeat that almost wrecked the radical remodelling project launched by Marc Lièvremont three years ago. And with some senior players openly questioning the coach's tactics, Les Bleus are not exactly a model of togetherness.
Lièvremont never tires of experimenting – he chops more in selection than Raymond Blanc chops in the kitchen – but the time has come for him to make some decisions. Who, for instance, will he ditch at scrum-half: Morgan Parra, Dimitri Yachvili or Julien Dupuy?
Declan Kidney, the coach, is not scheduled to name his squad until next week, but he has already resigned himself to losing one experienced international hand in the Leicester full-back Geordan Murphy, crocked while on Premiership duty last weekend.
The Irish are sound in most departments and spectacularly good in the back row, where Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip would demand places in any northern hemisphere selection. But they have issues at the sharp end and must pray that their unproven props – Cian Healy, Tony Buckley, Tom Court – make a case for themselves sooner rather than later.
The Azzurri are the team least able to absorb injuries. It is, therefore, particularly galling for the coach Nick Mallett that the most reliable of his outside-halves – the distinctly un-Italian Craig Gower – should be off-limits for the entire tournament. Gower did nasty things to his knee ligaments during the autumn, so Luciano Orquera (an Argentine based in France) will probably be the man for the moment.
Italy have three home games, which should encourage them, and they will be more heartened still if the 20-year-old scrum-half Edoardo Gori turns out to be a quarter as good as some people say.
Andy Robinson, who has had the smell of English blood in his very English nostrils ever since the two sides were drawn in the same World Cup pool, is another coach with three home games during the Six Nations and needs to extract value from the advantage. The coach is expected to name his squad next week and may well include the gifted footballing No 8 Johnnie Beattie, fresh back from the physio's slab after shoulder surgery.
One major question mark surrounds the tough Glasgow centre Graeme Morrison, whose knee problems threaten his participation in the tournament's early games.
The loss of the Lions Test prop Gethin Jenkins to toe trouble – have today's front-rowers gone soft, or what? – is undeniably a blow ahead of the opening night spectacular with England on 4 February, but the two Ospreys deputies, Paul James and Duncan Jones, are nobody's fools. There are decisions to make elsewhere, largely surrounding the make-up of the back-line contingent. Will Shane Williams be sufficiently fit to come under consideration? Will Lee Byrne recover from his orthopaedic issues in time? Will Gavin Henson show willing by removing his hands from his pockets, where they are seen too often at Saracens?Reuse content