Johnson's talent search puts veteran Bell in frame

Rash of injuries offers 35-year-old prop chance to force way into autumn Tests
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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson must have been feeling like a cross between Simon Cowell and Hughie Green yesterday as he made his selections for the 32-man England squad for the looming autumn international series at Twickenham.

His search for talent at either end of the front row having turned into a nightmarish Prop Idle, given the injuries suffered by Andrew Sheridan, Phil Vickery and Julian White over the past 11 days, the England team manager has chosen to go down something of an old style Opportunity Knocks route, presenting openings to the uncapped Bath loose head David Barnes, the 33-year-old chairman of the Rugby Players' Association, and his 35-year-old club-mate Duncan Bell, a tight head who was last called up for national service in 2005. There is also a youthful X Factor element, the 6ft 7in locks Courtney Lawes, 20, and Richard Blaze, 24, joining the veteran Barnes to complete a trio of new faces.

All round, by dint of necessity, the senior Elite Player Squad is something of a patch-work job. With a casualty list that also includes Nick Easter, Simon Shaw, Lee Mears, Tom Rees, Riki Flutey, Delon Armitage, Toby Flood, Olly Morgan and Harry Ellis, Johnson might have asked for the autumn series – which kicks off against the Wallabies on Saturday week – to be switched from Twickenham to the grounds of the West Middlesex University Hospital in Isleworth. Instead, he has called up the old and new and some in between. In addition to Barnes, Bell, Blaze and Lawes, in come the seasoned Lewis Moody, Steve Thompson and Andy Goode and the more youthful James Haskell, Shane Geraghty, David Strettle, Richard Wigglesworth and Ben Foden.

Jonny Wilkinson was already in the senior EPS squad but he too will be a Jonny Come Lately of sorts when he takes the field, as surely he will, a week on Saturday. Now 30, the one-time national treasure of an outside-half has been out of the international playing picture since he came off the bench against Ireland at Twickenham in March 2008. He has not played in an autumn international at red rose HQ since a 53-3 steamrollering of the Springboks in November 2003, although the injury-jinxed No 10 has put in distinguished autumn-time overseas service in the World Cups of 2003 and 2007.

Steve Borthwick, a veteran of both of those campaigns, retains the captaincy for the series, which also features home Tests against Argentina and New Zealand. "Steve has been appointed captain and I'm sure he will continue to do an excellent job," Johnson said yesterday. "The whole squad is looking forward to three very tough games in November. We've had to make a number of changes to the Senior EPS because of injuries but we have strength in depth, and each of the players coming in has the opportunity to push themselves into contention for the first match against Australia on 7 November."

It remains to be seen which players will comprise Johnson's XV to face the Wallabies, although of the uncapped trio Bell would appear to have the best chance of starting, given that his Bath club-mate Davy Wilson, the other tight-head prop in the squad, has only recently returned to action following a knee injury.

At No 8, the recalled Haskell – now starring for Stade Français in Paris – would appear to be the obvious replacement for Easter, while Moody could get the nod ahead of Steffon Armitage for Rees's openside flanker slot. The in-form Geraghty is favourite for Flutey's No 12 shirt, while the full-back berth vacated by Armitage's brother, Delon, may go to Lions wing Ugo Monye ahead of Foden.

Of longer-term concern for Johnson will be the opinion expressed yesterday by one medical expert, who reckons that the England manager can keep Sheridan crossed off his list for the Six Nations Championship in February and March. The original estimate was a four month lay-off after the big loose head dislocated his left shoulder in Sale's Heineken Cup tie against the Cardiff Blues 11 days ago but according to Simon Moyes, one of the UK's leading orthopaedic surgeons, the 29-year-old can expect to be out of commission until April at the earliest.

"Patients in these cases are normally in a sling for six weeks and then undertake an extensive physiotherapy-rehabilitation programme," he said. "I would therefore expect Andrew Sheridan to be out of action for at least six months from the time of surgery."

Another England hopeful was going under the knife yesterday, Dominic Waldouck having suffered a fractured cheekbone in a clash of heads with his team-mate Serge Betsen in Wasps' 35-6 win at Gloucester on Saturday. The 22-year-old centre had been a candidate for promotion from the England Saxons to Johnson's senior national squad. He is expected to be out of action for four weeks.

Trading places: Can the new faces fill injured players' boots?

*LOOSEHEAD PROP

The shoulder dislocation suffered by Andrew Sheridan has opened the door for Wasps' Tim Payne, a veteran of 12 caps, who should get the nod ahead of the uncapped David Barnes.

*HOOKER

With the Bath number two Lee Mears on the injured list, Dylan Hartley has competition from Steve Thompson, England's World Cup winning hooker of 2003, as well as George Chuter.

*TIGHTHEAD PROP

The neck problem suffered by Phil Vickery may be the hand of opportunity 35-year-old Duncan Bell has been waiting for since 2005.

*OPENSIDE FLANKER

Tom Rees' incapacitation with a shoulder problem leaves Martin Johnson with a choice between Lewis Moody, back in form, and Steffon Armitage.

*INSIDE CENTRE

Another victim of a shoulder injury, Riki Flutey has left the number 12 jersey vacant for Shane Geraghty.

*FULL-BACK

Delon Armitage is out with shoulder damage and his place could go to the Lions wing Ugo Monye.

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