What the gods of English rugby giveth with one hand, they taketh away with the other. Not before time, Martin Johnson and his selectors brought new weaponry to their misfiring back division yesterday, promoting free-scoring Northampton players Ben Foden and Chris Ashton to the starting line-up for this weekend's trip to France and – heresy of heresies – ditching Jonny Wilkinson, whose rages against the dying of the light have been growing more muted by the day.
Not that they were quite brave enough to admit to ditching him. The official line? All those smacks on the head against Scotland had prevented him taking a full part in training, so it made sense to give Toby Flood a run at outside-half and allow the incumbent to complete his rest and recuperation on the bench. And what if Flood breaks a fetlock in the opening two minutes? "Jonny will be fine to play whatever rugby we need him to play," came the response. So he HAS been dropped, then? Silence.
Elsewhere, the news was rather less encouraging for those craving some attacking imagination – some adventure, some ambition – from an England team that has spent so much of this Six Nations tournament giving one-dimensionality a bad name. Mathew Tait, the outside-centre responsible for virtually all the bright sparks over the course of the championship (a match-saving run against Wales, a match-winning try against Italy) was also dumped, in favour of Mike Tindall. Was this a direct response to the presence of the outsized Mathieu Bastareaud in the French midfield? Johnson denied it, but he is hardly unfamiliar with the "horses for courses" approach. Or rather, the "carthorses for courses" approach. Witness Ayoola Erinle's bizarre, barely believable materialisation at inside-centre against the All Blacks last autumn.
It is all about physicality – or rather, the perceived lack of it. If Wilkinson, perhaps the heaviest and certainly the most prodigious tackler ever to wear the No 10 shirt at international level, is not there to slam doors on the opposition in midfield, the England hierarchy feel compelled to compensate elsewhere. Tindall is a superb defensive organiser and a hard nut. He may not frighten the French in broken field, but he will not be broken himself.
Johnson named Ashton, the one new cap in the side, out of position on the left wing, and then hinted that the former rugby league international would play on the right, from where he has scored all 19 of his tries this season. To do otherwise would border on the lunatic. The two positions are entirely different, especially when it comes to dealing with the opposition's kicking game: back in 1983, England asked David Trick, the blindingly quick right wing from Bath, to make a debut against Ireland on the "wrong" side of the field and paid the price when Ollie Campbell made a monkey of him. Trick has told this mournful story against himself at a thousand rugby dinners down the years.
Up front, the selection was hampered by the growing doubts over Steve Borthwick's fitness. The captain did not train yesterday, for the very good reason that his troublesome left knee was in a brace, and as various orthopaedic specialists have been falling out with each other over the precise nature of the injury, there is every chance of him watching the match in Paris rather than playing in it. Tom Palmer, the middle-jumping specialist whose line-out game is well up to international standard, is still with the squad and may be picked ahead of the front-jumping Louis Deacon in the event of Borthwick's withdrawal.
With Simon Shaw back in the second row and Lewis Moody returning to the open-side flank – Deacon and James Haskell make way – England have two Lions Test players in the mix. They will need all this and more if they are to interrupt the Tricolores' serene advance towards a fifth title – not to mention a third Grand Slam – in nine years.
"They're confident and they're on form," Johnson said with a slight snarl. "We have to knock that out of them. Our own confidence comes into it, as does willpower. Saturday night under lights at Stade de France, with the home crowd looking for a Slam? This is big-time rugby."
England B Foden (Northampton); M Cueto (Sale), M Tindall (Gloucester), R Flutey (Brive), C Ashton (N'ton), T Flood (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins), T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (N'ton), D Cole (Leic), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick, (Saracens, capt), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leic), N Easter (H'quins).
Replacements: S Thompson (Brive), D Wilson (Bath), L Deacon (Leic), J Haskell (Stade Francais), B Youngs (Leic), J Wilkinson (Toulon), M Tait (Sale).
France C Poitrenaud (Toulouse), M Andreu (Castres), M Bastareaud (SF), Y Jauzion (Tou), A Palisson (Brive), F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), M Parra, T Domingo (both Clermont), W Servat (Tou), N Mas (Perpignan), L Nallet (Racing Metro), J Pierre (Cler), T Dusautoir (Tou, capt), J Bonnaire (Cler), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz).
Replacements: D Szarzewski (SF), J-B Poux (Tou), S Chabal (R Metro), A Lapandry (Cler), D Yachvili (Bia), D Marty (Perp), J Malzieu (Cler).
Referee: B Lawrence (NZ)
TV: BBC1, Saturday, 7.45pm
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