Stevens leads Saxons contenders

England Saxons 87 United States 8: A look at Martin Johnson's options as his second string thrash the US at Franklin's Gardens
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The Independent Online

This time last year, Martin Johnson and his coaches were in Australia, sifting through not merely back-up players for the World Cup squad but an uncomfortably large number of front-runners too.

A year earlier, he was en route for Argentina and in 2008 England were in New Zealand, though Johnson had yet to take up the reins. The point of the history lesson is the place of the close-season tour, which the International Rugby Board has decreed will not take place immediately prior to a World Cup.

So, rather than exotic overseas locations, England's management have eyes only for Northampton, Gloucester and Worcester, where the England Saxons will play out the ninth edition of the Churchill Cup. That gives the Saxons plenty to play for – in their 87-8 dismissal of the United States at Franklin's Gardens yesterday, against Tonga at Kingsholm next Sunday and on finals day at Sixways on 18 June.

Three months before departure for New Zealand and the seventh global tournament, what is Johnson seeking from the exercise? An extended squad of 42 will be named on 20 June but the World Cup squad confirmed on 22 August will be based squarely on the players who won the Six Nations; the last three or four names in the party of 30 remain to be determined – Dave Attwood, the Gloucester lock, looks set for the second row and a final back-row place and a full-back or utility back will need to be found.

Mind you, Johnson must be concerned enough about the form of his first-choice half backs. Neither Ben Youngs nor Toby Flood have been at the height of their game in the last three months and you would argue that Danny Care and Jonny Wilkinson would, at this moment, make a more effective combination.

Joe Simpson of Wasps is behind Youngs and Care as the third scrum-half but Johnson's major headache may be provided by Saracens, the new champions. They offer candidates all over the shop – Richard Wigglesworth at No 9, Alex Goode as a utility back, Brad Barritt as a centre and a former England captain, Steve Borthwick, at lock where Simon Shaw, to be frank, has been showing his age.

Where now does Borthwick, with his 57 caps, reside in Johnson's plans and how much delight did he take in lifting the Premiership trophy last week after his rejection by England? Another Saracens lock, Mouritz Botha, played yesterday for the Saxons, along with the most intriguing World Cup possibilities, the props Matt Stevens and Matt Mullan.

Both Matts are in rehab, Stevens after a two-year ban imposed for recreational drug use, Mullan recovering yet again from serious injury, this time to his shoulder. Stevens, who has 32 caps, has been working his way back – his ability to play on both sides of the scrum is in his favour.

Mullan, of Worcester, was spoken of in the same breath as Leicester's Dan Cole in 2009-10, when he won his only cap as a replacement against Italy. But where Cole has trained on to become first-choice tighthead, Mullan has made only six appearances this season. At 24, he is young enough for 2015.

Johnson and co have mingled with the Saxons all week and they watched a record 13-try victory yesterday over a United States squad coached by Eddie O'Sullivan, once of Ireland. The management would have wanted a sterner test but the American scrum wilted and errors behind contributed to the overwhelming defeat. England started with six internationals and the full-back Mike Brown confirmed a good impression created with Harlequins. But, for all his indiscipline over the past season, Delon Armitage may remain as second-choice No 15, behind Ben Foden; Johnson is not in the habit of ignoring experience and Armitage has more than Brown or Goode.

England Saxons

Tries: Benjamin 3, Brown 2, Young, penalty, Johnson, Twelvetrees, Trinder, Sharples, Kitchener, Hodgson. Cons: Clegg 11.

United States

Try: Lavalla. Pen: Enosa.

England Saxons M Brown (Harlequins); T Ojo (London Irish), H Trinder (Gloucester), B Twelvetrees (Leicester), M Benjamin (Worcester); R Clegg (Harlequins), M Young (Newcastle); M Mullan (Worcester), J Gray (Harlequins), M Stevens, M Botha (both Saracens), D Attwood (Gloucester), J Gaskell (Sale), J Crane (Leicester, capt), T Johnson (Exeter). Replacements J Gibson (London Irish) for Gaskell, 15); K Brookes (Newcastle) for Stevens, 33-41 & for Mullan, 61; A Goode (Saracens) for Brown, 52; C Sharples (Gloucester) for Ojo, 52; D Paice (London Irish) for Gray, 55; G Kitchener (Worcester) for Botha, 61; P Hodgson (London Irish) for Young, 70.

USA M Palefau (Utah Warriors); M Pulu (San Francisco Golden Gate), T Enosa (Belmont Shore), J Sifa (Nottingham), C Hawley (Olympic); T Hall , M Petri (both NYAC); E Fry (Las Vegas), P Thiel (Life University), W Johnson (London Welsh), J van der Giessen (Idaho), S Lavalla (Trinity College), P Danahy (Life University), JJ Gagiano (UCT), D Laprevotte (San Francisco). Replacements S Pittman (London Welsh) for Fry, 47; C Biller (San Francisco Golden Gate) for Thiel, 47; L Stanfill (Mogliano) for Laprevotte, 55; R Suniula (Boston) for Pulu, 55; I Basauri (L'Aquila) for Gagiano, 66; T Usasz (Nottingham) for Petri, 74); A Suniula (Chicago Griffins) for Sifa, 79)

Referee N Owens (Wales)

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