Johnson trumpets squad as strongest tourists since World Cup heyday

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The Independent Online

Nine uncapped players and an absent captain? The Australians had their fill of weak England tour parties long ago and are in no rush to see another one. This England squad is different, however. This group, as the manager Martin Johnson argued yesterday, will be the strongest to cross the Equator since the World Cup-winning year of 2003, and as a consequence, results will be paramount. Two heavy defeats by the Wallabies next month will be hard to stomach, because this is pretty much the best Johnson has to offer.

The vast majority of the Elite Player Squad picked by the manager back in January will be present and correct, supplemented by a 20-strong group who can claim to be among the form players in the Premiership – or, in the case of Tom Palmer of Stade Français, the French Top 14 tournament. Johnson now has David Flatman, the best of England's loose-head props, at his disposal, along with a revitalised Olly Barkley, a rejuvenated Charlie Hodgson, a bristling Joe Simpson, a confident Dominic Waldouck and a clutch of new back-five forwards – Dave Attwood of Gloucester, Geoff Parling of Leicester, Hendre Fourie of Leeds – who will look to lay down a marker ahead of next year's World Cup in New Zealand.

All told, then, this is a useful party – one that should be more than capable of avoiding the utter humiliation routinely associated with English encroachments on Wallaby territory. "It's a full England tour," Johnson said. "This is our last visit to the southern hemisphere before the World Cup and it's a big chance for the people who are travelling. You can never say it's the last chance because things happen, but Australia is a great place to play and people are gagging for a place. We have two Tests and three other matches ahead of us and while there is a longer-term element to all this, they are games we want to win."

Steve Borthwick's failure to recover from the knee problem he aggravated during the drawn Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield in March leaves a hole where the captain should be, and while Johnson has yet to fill it, the claims of Lewis Moody, the Leicester flanker who led the side in the final Six Nations game with France, are very strong indeed. The manager's delay can be explained by the shape of the end-of-season fixture list: he will not know until Sunday evening whether Moody will be on club duty in the Premiership final on 29 May or be available for England's eve-of-tour match with the Barbarians the following day.

If Borthwick's withdrawal was widely anticipated, the decision not to select the Wasps flanker Tom Rees was more surprising. Rees, very much on the management's radar as a long-term captain, has performed strikingly since returning from long-term injury a little over six weeks ago, but he must satisfy himself with a place in the second-string Saxons squad – something of a booby prize, given that the senior squad is 44-strong. "Tom hasn't played quite enough rugby in our view," explained Johnson.

A number of others with sound claims to a tour place – Nick Abendanon of Bath, his fellow full-back Alex Goode of Saracens and the hard-working Northampton back-row forward Phil Dowson – must also make do with Saxons status, as must the London Irish scrum-half Paul Hodgson, who was a first-choice Test player last autumn and was fully involved in the Six Nations campaign. He is among the heavier fallers, beaten to a seat on the Australia-bound place by Simpson.

While the likes of the veteran Wasps prop Phil Vickery were not considered – "He's just back from major surgery and while it's nice to see him playing again, we need him to have a good off-season and then see where he is at the start of September," Johnson commented – the return of Charlie Hodgson to the international scene a few months shy of his 30th birthday is intriguing. In 2008, Hodgson's missed tackles in New Zealand left him facing a dead end. Suddenly, he can see a small door in the wall.

As for another outside-half, Danny Cipriani... well, there was bad news coming from all directions. Johnson said bluntly that the Melbourne-bound midfielder did not even begin to challenge for a place on either tour, while Wasps, the club he is in the process of leaving, reported that the fractured thumb he suffered while playing at Newcastle last weekend will incapacitate him for the best part of two months and stop him playing for the Barbarians against England.

Squad and fixtures

Backs

D Armitage (London Irish), C Ashton (Northampton), M Banahan, O Barkley (both Bath), D Care (Harlequins), M Cueto (Sale), T Flood (Leicester), B Foden, S Geraghty (both Northampton), S Hape (Bath), C Hodgson (Sale), U Monye (H'quins), J Simpson (Wasps), D Strettle (H'quins), M Tait (Sale), M Tindall (Gloucester), D Waldouck (Wasps), R Wigglesworth (Sale), J Wilkinson (Toulon), B Youngs (Leicester).

Forwards

S Armitage (L Irish), D Attwood (Gloucester), D Cole, T Croft (both Leicester), P Doran-Jones (Glouc), N Easter (H'quins), D Flatman (Bath), H Fourie (Leeds), J Golding (Newcastle), D Hartley (North'ton), J Haskell (Stade Francais), C Lawes (North'ton), L Mears (Bath), L Moody (Leicester), T Palmer (SF), G Parling (Leicester), T Payne (Wasps), C Robshaw (H'quins), S Shaw (Wasps), S Thompson (Brive), D Ward-Smith, R Webber (both Wasps), D Wilson (Bath), J Worsley (Wasps).

Fixtures

Tue 8 June Australia Barbarians (Perth)

Sat 12 June Australia (Perth)

Tue 15 June Australia Barbarians (Gosford)

Sat 19 June Australia (Sydney)

Wed 23 June NZ Maori (Napier)

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