No excuses, Johnson has to get it right this time

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The game within a game is to second-guess Martin Johnson's selection, and that has not been as straightforward as was once envisaged. Some very dubious calls led to the downfall of Andy Robinson as England coach, and Brian Ashton also had his banana skins.

Perhaps it is the sheer size of the talent pool that confuses them, but England manage to get it more wrong than right on an alarming scale. Johnson is new to the coaching game and got his nose bloodied during the autumn campaign, during which his side suffered defeats to Australia, 28-14, South Africa, 42-6, and New Zealand, 32-6.

"The players are the best we've got," he insisted. But was he making the right selections? Two of England's most outstanding back-rowers are Tom Rees of Wasps and Tom Croft of Leicester. Both were dropped during that eye-opening Nov-ember at Twickenham. That they were relegated at all is surprising, but even more astonishing is that both had played their socks off.

To drop one Tom could be considered daft, but both is sheer carelessness. Rees tore a medial knee ligament playing against Harlequins last week and will not be seen on the pitch again for another two months. Tom Palmer, the Wasps second-rower, is also hors de combat, as is the scrum-half Peter Richards. Harry Ellis, another scrum-half who was supposed to keep Danny Care on the bench, is suspended after committing a dangerous tackle against Dan Carter in a match between Leicester and Perpignan.

On Wednesday, Johnson announces an elite player squad of 32 for the Six Nations' Championship, plus another 32 for the second-tier Saxons. This time he is allowed to make five changes to the senior squad from last July, plus fill any gaps left by injuries and suspensions, so there will obviously be a significant input. He is always banging on about the importance of experience and, with Josh Lewsey retiring from international rugby (at least with England, although not necessarily the Lions), Mark Cueto and Mike Tindall have both run into form and the huge Bath wing Matt Banahan is also worthy of consideration.

Jonny Wilkinson of The Lancet is still out of the running, so the first conundrum for Johnson to solve is who plays at No 10. Toby Flood and Danny Cipriani are the front-runners and both have had their shaky moments, so much so that it is high time Johnson inherited a wealth of confidence in his stand-off, whoever that may be. It will almost certainly be one or the other, although there is also Shane Geraghty, who made a dazzling debut for England against France a couple of seasons ago before injury and ignorance left him out the picture. Olly Barkley, who has been in and out of the squad on a regular basis, is back in contention, probably at No 12.

One of England's bigger problems, apart from hitting on the best stand-off, has been finding a creative midfield, and Jamie Noon and Riki Flutey have not really cut it. Flutey was supposed to form an understanding with Cipriani, and that did not happen either.

The selections so far have not lit the imagination, but now Johnson has a chance to rectifythat. Apart from the recall of Barkley, who is also a goalkicker, he could invite the powerful young Harlequins centre Jordan Turner-Hall to the party. Turner-Hall has been having the season of his career, as has his back-row team-mate Chris Robshaw, who is another contender for the Red Rose elite.

One of the few successes of the autumn campaign was Delon Armitage at full-back and, according to Mike Catt, a player-coach at London Irish, Delon's brother Steffon, a 23-year-old back-rower, deserves promotion from the Saxons.

"He's the next Neil Back," Catt said. "He's got every attri-bute to be an internationalopenside flanker. He's been outstanding for London Irish. His distribution is very good, his pace is very good and he's great over the ball. I think he deserves an opportunity. I know what these Armitages are like. Delon took his chance with both hands and somewhere along the line I'm sure Steff will do the same."