Johnson ruffles feathers with his culling strategy
Lingering sense of injustice after five dropped from World Cup squad before Wales warm-up game
If it was perfectly legitimate for Martin Johnson to take a cosmopolitan approach to World Cup squad selection back in June – for every red-rose-tinted Colonel Blimp who flirted with spontaneous combustion at the number of southern-hemisphere types in the England manager's 45-man party, untold thousands failed to see the problem – there was something about his decision to pick Leicester's No 8 Thomas Waldrom, for no obvious reason and on the basis of no discernible evidence, that stuck in the craw.
Not least because the uncapped New Zealander's sudden promotion to elite status destroyed the hopes and dreams of two of the club game's hardest-working and most effective loose forwards: Luke Narraway of Gloucester, whose ironic view of the matter was promptly "tweeted" to the rugby nation, and Phil Dowson of Northampton. Waldrom had done precious little, at least in public, to justify a place among the contenders for next month's tournament in All Black country. Set against Narraway and Dowson, he'd done nothing at all.
So it was with some discomfort yesterday that Johnson included Waldrom in his initial cull ahead of this weekend's match with Wales at Twickenham, the first of three warm-up fixtures designed to reintroduce England's finest to the harsh physical realities of the union game at international level before the serious business with Argentina in Dunedin on 10 September. The manager reported that a twanged calf muscle had limited Waldrom's training-camp involvement to something approaching zero – a revelation that will not have improved Narraway's mood or lightened Dowson's demeanour one little bit.
Waldrom was far from the only player to find the bitter phrase "not wanted on voyage" sewn into his kitbag. His clubmate, the hooker George Chuter, also lost out, having been overtaken in the pecking order by the rejuvenated Lee Mears of Bath, as did the long-serving Wasps flanker Joe Worsley, who played in the 2007 World Cup final, if only for a few seconds. As for the seven-strong bank of wings, Johnson cut that down to five by drawing a line through the names of David Strettle and James Simpson-Daniel, both of whom missed the 2007 tournament.
"This is the tough part of the job," the manager conceded. "It's not nice. Thomas was incredibly disappointed, but he's not really participated. Joe worked really hard, but we decided he's just a little short at the moment. George? He's been around the squad a long time but so has Lee, and after a good battle, it was Lee who edged it. After the Lions tour in '09 he missed the autumn internationals through injury, during which time Dylan Hartley came through and Steve Thompson came back. Now, he's showing the very high level of energy, the line-out accuracy and the smart approach to the game that made him a Lions hooker."
Simpson-Daniel, one of the great lost talents of English rugby, fell off the training pace through illness and injury – the two i-words that have come to define his career. (Johnson's predecessor as top dog, Brian Ashton, reluctantly decided in 2007 that a World Cup was no place for the Scott Fitzgeralds of the rugby community: enviably gifted, but chronically fragile.) Yet of the five to have fallen on stony ground, Strettle can consider himself hardest done-by.
According to Johnson – and, indeed, a number of those players certain to make the trip to New Zealand – the elusive Saracens wing trained exceptionally well before picking up a minor injury during last week's not-so-secret full-contact match behind closed doors at the Stoop, the Harlequins club ground. Yet it seems Charlie Sharples, the late challenger from Gloucester, trained better. "Charlie's been very impressive: he's got his head down, worked hard, taken it all in and been very thorough," Johnson explained.
So it is that 40 players remain in camp, scrapping among themselves for 30 seats on the flight to Auckland. If Sharples, who failed to register even the faintest blip on the England radar during the Six Nations in February and March, is to board the plane, he will have to see off Ugo Monye, the Lions wing from Harlequins. There are also decisions to be made at scrum-half and at lock, and fierce battles still to be fought among the props and back-row forwards.
In addition, there is still the prospect of injuries destabilising things as England negotiate home-and-away tussles with Wales and a deeply challenging visit to Ireland in the space of four weekends. Leaving aside those nursing hangovers from the Mike Tindall wedding celebrations – Johnson insisted that the World Cup-winning centre returned from his own ceremony "as if he'd never been away" but the jocular wing Chris Ashton informed his audience that if none of the England players was sick the following morning, it was only because "none of us had any breakfast" – there are lingering concerns over the Sale prop Andrew Sheridan, the Northampton lock Courtney Lawes and the Leicester half-back Ben Youngs. It will be surprising if any of them play on Saturday, and Tindall may well sit it out.
How will the manager approach these games? Will he concentrate on the perming of 30 from 40, or spend more time cementing important partnerships ahead of the must-win games next month? "For the players, things shouldn't change in these warm-up matches: they need to perform well and find a way to win, same as usual," he replied. "For the management, there is a difference, a balance to be struck. It's the only time when England matches take on a bigger picture, because they're leading to something else.
"There are people like Charlie Sharples and Manu Tuilagi who are new to this group, there are others involved who have been playing recently and still others who played a little while ago and are back in contention. There are bits of everything to be taken into consideration."
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