Martin Johnson and his coaching staff spent many a long hour chewing the fat over their personnel choices for England's fear-fuelled Calcutta Cup meeting with Scotland this weekend. "It was the longest selection process since I've been involved," the manager confessed. And what did the top brass come up with as a result of their tortuous deliberations? A team of bruisers: tough-tackling, arm-wrestling, agoraphobic bruisers. The Murrayfield groundsman might as well dig trenches across the pitch.
Joe Worsley's appearance on the open-side flank at the expense of Lewis Moody is the clearest possible indication that Johnson is approaching this game in the same deeply conservative way he approached the matches in Wales and Ireland during last year's Six Nations Championship. The Wasps forward is widely lauded as one of the sport's leading defensive specialists, but no one would pretend he is either quicker or more mobile than Moody, or that he is more of a footballing link player. The threat posed by Scotland's wide-ranging loose combination is clearly understood, and the plan is to shut them down at source.
It does not say much for England's so-called "progress", a word used by both Johnson and the attack coach Brian Smith yesterday. Compared with some of the recent stuff played by New Zealand, Australia, France and Wales (albeit for 40 minutes at a time, after a nice half-time rest), red-rose rugby borders on the antediluvian. But the former world champions are in needs-must territory after the home defeat by Ireland and in such circumstances, their manager will generally revert to type, that type being a combination of the ruthlessly physical and the risk-averse.
As expected, the Leicester lock Louis Deacon – a tight forward made in Johnson's image, if not blessed with anything like his greatness – will replace the injured Simon Shaw. Less anticipated was Delon Armitage's speedy recovery from the rib cartilage injury he suffered against Ireland. According to the manager, the London Irish full-back successfully negotiated a hard contact session on Monday and pronounced himself fit – the bristling Ben Foden of Northampton stays on the bench and must bristle a little longer.
Johnson was in no mood to admit to any risk surrounding Arm-itage, but ribs being ribs, it will be surprising if the Scottish back-rowers fail to work out a way of subjecting the full-back to a fitness test of their own devising. If he emerges from the Murrayfield experience in one piece, it will speak volumes for his tenacity, as well as for the skill of the medical staff.
If England look exciting anywhere, it is on the bench. Foden's game-breaking interventions have been much in evidence this season, as have the subtle distributive skills of the Leicester stand-off Toby Flood. And then there is Flood's half-back partner Ben Youngs, freshly installed in the match-day squad at the tender age of 20. His father Nick also played international rugby, winning half-a-dozen caps in the same No 9 shirt. If anyone seriously doubts Youngs the Younger's ability to beat the old man's tally, they must be close to certifiable.
Youngs has been nothing short of brilliant this season. Even Johnson says so, and Johnson is not a man to throw verbal garlands at the feet of mere children. "Ben has proved that his basic skills hold up in high-pressure matches," said the manager, pointing to his Heineken Cup performances against opponents as good as Clermont Auvergne and Ospreys.
"Eyebrows were raised when Leicester let Julien Dupuy return to France back in the summer, but the club knew they had a talented individual ready to come in. He was surprised to be named on the bench. When I informed him, he said: 'But Leicester don't have a match this weekend.' I had to spell it out to him that I was talking about England. It's nice to have someone like that involved."
It says something about the scale of the generation gap that until yesterday, Youngs was blissfully unaware that his father played a Calcutta Cup match in 1984. "I've never really spoken to him about his England career," he admitted.
He was, however, conscious that Youngs Senior never experienced a World Cup. Assuming the newcomer stays fit, he is likely to make the cut for the 2011 competition. We can expect his dad to experience that one alright, if only from the stands.
Teams for Murrayfield
D Armitage (L Irish)
M Cueto (Sale)
M Tait (Sale)
R Flutey (Brive)
U Monye (Harlequins)
J Wilkinson (Toulon)
D Care (Harlequins)
T Payne (Wasps)
D Hartley (North'ton) D Cole (Leicester)
S Shaw (Wasps)
S Borthwick (Sar'ns, c)
J Haskell (St Français)
J Worsley (Wasps)
N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: S Thompson (Brive), D Wilson (Bath), L Moody (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), T Flood (Leicester), B Foden (Northampton).
H Southwell (Stade)
S Lamont (Scarlets)
N De Luca (Edinburgh) G Morrison (Glasgow) M Evans (Glasgow)
D Parks (Glasgow)
C Cusiter (Glasgow, c) A Jacobsen (Ed'burgh)
R Ford (Edinburgh)
E Murray (N' hampton)
J Hamilton (Ed'burgh) A Kellock (Glasgow)
K Brown (Glasgow)
J Barclay (Glasgow)
J Beattie (Glasgow)
Replacements: S Lawson (Gl'cester), G Cross (Ed'burgh), N Hines (Leinster), A MacDonald (Ed'burgh), R Lawson (Gl'cester), P Godman (Ed'burgh), S Danielli (Ulster)
Referee M Jonker (South Africa)
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