Johnson sweats over who to give ticket for front row

As England's manager is forced to delay naming the team for Saturday's injury-hit game against Australia, Chris Hewett reports on why his choice of prop is crucial
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Martin Johnson will not see it this way if his England team fail to beat Australia on Saturday and continue a run of failure against the major southern hemisphere powers stretching back to the World Cup quarter-final victory over the same opposition well over two years ago, but he might be said to be in a lucky place rather than an unlucky one – as demonstrated by the fact that the rugby public has just voted him "player of the century" ahead of the great Welsh scrum-half Gareth Edwards, with Michael Jones of New Zealand and John Eales of Australia not even in the running. No, we're not making it up.

Injuries have shredded Johnson's elite squad and exposed faultlines that might crack open at any moment between now and the next global contest for the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2011. Yet if some of those injury victims – the ancient tight-head props Phil Vickery and Julian White, the venerable lock Simon Shaw, the ageing Mike Tindall – might be sorely missed when the Wallabies come knocking on Twickenham's door, their absence at least gives the manager an opportunity to look beyond his own nose and start building for the tournament in All Black country a little over 20 months from now.

The question is whether he is of a mind to take advantage of the circumstances. Yesterday, there were alarming indications that he did not know his mind at all: late in the afternoon, he decided to delay today's planned team announcement by 24 hours on the grounds that he had not even settled on the 22-man squad, let alone the starting XV. But opportunities for team-building progress are there, if he chooses to grasp them.

Will the manager fill the crater left by Vickery and White by turning to the 35-year-old Duncan Bell, or will he give the baby-faced man mountain a miss and run his Bath club-mate, the 24-year-old David Wilson, instead? Might he be sufficiently brave to play the startlingly athletic 20-year-old Northampton lock Courtney Lawes in the engine room, rather than fall back on the hard-grafting but unspectacular Louis Deacon of Leicester? Could he even give the lost talent of English rugby, Mathew Tait, a gallop in his optimum position of outside centre? The phrase "pigs might fly" probably applies to the latter case.

There is no obvious logic against picking Wilson. Neither Vickery nor White will make the next World Cup and while Bell still looks as though he has yet to start shaving, there is not much chance of him getting there either. But Johnson is in dire need of a victory against really serious opposition to kick-start his stewardship, so short-term measures – the sticking-plaster options – are currently more attractive than they ought to be.

Lawes, a big hit at the Junior World Cup during the summer, is a more delicate problem. There are people at Northampton who believe England would be crazy to play him now, on the basis that he is still filling out and is nowhere near fit enough for 80 minutes of international rugby. This is not to suggest that he is shirking on the conditioning front. Rather, it is a reflection that a tight forward with a mere 16 Premiership outings behind him has yet to learn how to manage himself in such a brutally demanding position.

Of course, Australia have a long tradition of identifying bright young things and throwing them head first into the Test arena. Forwards like Eales, perhaps the greatest of all second-rowers, and the hooker Phil Kearns famously found themselves deposited in sink-or-swim territory, and promptly moved through the shark-infested waters of the international game like a couple of supercharged Ian Thorpes. But the Wallabies are also in need of a victory after a rough Tri-Nations. Judging by the mood in their camp yesterday, experienced hands like George Smith and Stephen Moore will be back in the starting line-up for this weekend's important piece of business.

Part of the tourists' selection will be governed by the anticipated reappearance of Jonny Wilkinson in England colours. "I think the most critical element is the reintroduction of Jonny, because he brings so much certainty," said the Wallaby coach, Robbie Deans, who will send a strong second-string side featuring nine capped players to Gloucester tonight for the first match of this Grand Slam tour of the British Isles.

"There will be a lot of expectation on him to play at the same level for which he became renowned, but I don't think expectation will be a big deal. It's not as if he's just arrived on the scene. His influence on his peers will be valuable in terms of the confidence he gives them and we believe England will be more dangerous with him there because he'll bring shape to their game."

Close calls: Johnson must weigh youth against experience

*Tight-head prop

If ever England needed the skills of Matt Stevens, it is now. Unfortunately, the man groomed to anchor the scrum at the next World Cup is serving a two-year ban for cocaine abuse, and even if he shows some form ahead of the tournament, Martin Johnson might want nothing to do with him. Duncan Bell is the most experienced operator available, but is there any point picking him ahead of David Wilson, whose future is ahead of him rather than behind?

*Second row

Simon Shaw played some stellar rugby for the Lions, but no one seriously believes he will go to the next World Cup. If Steve Borthwick is regarded as the long-term captain, he needs the right kind of lock alongside him. If Courtney Lawes and Nick Kennedy do not fit this particular bill, there will be difficult decisions ahead.

*No 8

With Nick Easter injured, do England go for the heavy-duty Jordan Crane or experiment with James Haskell? And where will the more wide-ranging Luke Narraway feature in the pecking order when fit again?

*Outside centre

The age-old question of what to do with the gifted Mathew Tait should have been answered by now, but England seem to want a basher – meaning Mike Tindall plays if fit, while Dan Hipkiss gets the nod if he isn't.