Johnson's call-ups upset Gloucester and Saints

Clubs denied key players as they prepare for ties with Heineken Cup spot at stake
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The Independent Online

Just when Martin Johnson thought he had enough on his plate with selection for this weekend's horribly awkward Calcutta Cup contest with Scotland at Murrayfield – the debate over Jonny Wilkinson's place in the starting line-up is hotter now than at any time since 2008, while the turmoil surrounding the tug-of-love flanker James Haskell shows no sign of easing off – the England manager's popularity with the Premiership clubs took another nosedive yesterday.

By calling two Gloucester players, the full-back Olly Morgan and the centre Mike Tindall, into the red-rose training squad along with the Northampton outside-half Shane Geraghty, he pretty much guaranteed himself a barrage of abuse from the general directions of Kingsholm and Northampton Saints, both of whom play Anglo-Welsh Cup semi-finals this weekend. This season's newly-minted tournament may have risen without trace, but as it carries a precious Heineken Cup place for the English contingent, neither Bryan Redpath, the Gloucester coach, nor Jim Mallinder were ecstatic at the prospect of preparing for their respective meetings with Cardiff Blues and Saracens with one hand firmly attached to their spines.

To make matters worse on the club-v-country front, Johnson also summoned the former Wasps lock Tom Palmer from Paris, where he is in his first season with Stade Français. England's refusal to release James Haskell for Stade's big match with Toulouse at the weekend caused the mother and father of a row and the Frenchmen are even snarlier now than they were then, having found themselves on the painful end of a 29-0 thrashing. To lose Palmer, who played all 80 minutes of the match, for this Friday's important Top 14 trip to Brive may be considered one insult too many.

Morgan, Tindall and Geraghty were whistled up for duty because of injuries to Delon Armitage, who hurt his ribs during the Six Nations defeat by Ireland late last month; Dan Hipkiss, who is currently on crutches; and Toby Flood, who took a smack on the head during Leicester's victory over London Irish on Saturday night and was being assessed by the England medical team yesterday. Palmer, meanwhile, is making up the training numbers in the second row following Simon Shaw's most recent orthopaedic calamity. Shaw has a damaged shoulder joint and is definitely out of Calcutta Cup contention.

A fifth player from outside the 32-man senior squad, Hendre Fourie of Leeds, appeared at the team base in Surrey yesterday – the direct result of the latest knee injury suffered by the eternally unfortunate Wasps No 8 Dan Ward-Smith. The 32-year-old flanker has been at the heart of the Tykes' spectacular run of victories in the Premiership and is, by common consent, one of the form loose forwards in the country. However, his chances of featuring in Edinburgh this weekend are no better than Morgan's or Palmer's.

Which begs the question of who Johnson will field against a Scottish side confident of upsetting the apple-cart for the third time in as many Murrayfield meetings with the old enemy, despite their slide to the foot of the Six Nations table. Flood was doing his chances of promotion from the England bench no harm at all when he suffered his concussive misfortune at Welford Road, but the manager has yet to give the slightest indication that he is prepared to sacrifice Wilkinson.

Meanwhile, the back-row options include Joe Worsley, one of Johnson's go-to men when the chips are down, and Steffon Armitage, who played some eye-catching rugby for London Irish at the weekend and would give the loose combination an attacking edge. The selectors need to make the right calls in this area, for if the Scots pose a really serious threat to England's well-being, it is in the breakaway department.

Meanwhile, Johnson could take some solace from the fact that Anglo-French relations over player release are no worse than French-French relations. Yesterday, the Biarritz manager Laurent Rodriguez lambasted the Tricolore hierarchy for recalling the scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili ahead of this weekend's match with Italy. Rodriguez insisted his goal-kicking scrum-half, just back from injury, was nowhere near fit enough to replace the stricken Frédéric Michalak in the national team.