Johnston pressing for problem shirt position

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The Independent Online

The Weekend of the Olympic 100 metres competition for men is hardly the most appropriate occasion to sing the praises of a character called Ben Johnston, even allowing for the spelling of his surname. But the - how shall we say? - positives surrounding Saracens' increasingly influential outside centre are rather different to those attributed to Canada's bogey-man sprinter of similar appellation, although Johnston will justifiably feel as high as a kite if Clive Woodward awards him a first cap when the world champions of Australia come knocking at the door in November.

The Weekend of the Olympic 100 metres competition for men is hardly the most appropriate occasion to sing the praises of a character called Ben Johnston, even allowing for the spelling of his surname. But the - how shall we say? - positives surrounding Saracens' increasingly influential outside centre are rather different to those attributed to Canada's bogey-man sprinter of similar appellation, although Johnston will justifiably feel as high as a kite if Clive Woodward awards him a first cap when the world champions of Australia come knocking at the door in November.

And the likelihood of that happening is growing greater with every Premiership weekend, especially as the incumbent, Mike Tindall of Bath, is struggling for any sort of form. Tindall's decisive try against Newcastle last weekend was comfortably the best thing to have happened to him since his wonderfully resilient performance against the Springboks in Bloemfontein in mid-June - a fact not lost on Woodward's team of spotters and checkers.

Johnston, meanwhile, is bang on the money; during the big fixture of the season so far, the mean and moody Saracens-Leicester rumble at Vicarage Road earlier this month, he was sin-binned in the first half and might easily have been sent off in the second, yet the law-abiding Woodward revelled in the 21-year-old Liverpudlian's rumbustious contribution to a highly physical encounter. The England manager has yet to name his first training squad of the campaign - he delayed yesterday's scheduled announcement until next Tuesday, thereby hinting at some lingering uncertainty - but all the available evidence suggests that if England were playing the Wallabies tomorrow, Johnston would be in the starting XV.

Given that Woodward spent his entire senior playing career at outside centre and was sufficiently proficient in the role to win two Lions Test caps, it is ironic that the No 13 shirt should still be giving him more grief than any other. He took over the red rose reins from Jack Rowell at an awkward moment - Jeremy Guscott, the class act of the 1990s, was injured and in decline - and his first idea was to give Mike Catt an opportunity. Alex King's injury on the eve of the 1997 Test with Australia spiked that particular brainwave: Catt ended up at outside-half at Twickenham that day and the position has remained fluid ever since.

Guscott's intermittent outbreaks of fitness gave Woodward some breathing space, but whenever the "prince of centres", as Rowell famously described him, declared himself out of circulation, the selection headache returned with the force of a full-blown migraine. Will Greenwood, Nick Greenstock, Matt Perry, Nick Beal and Barrie-Jon Mather all attempted to solve the problem without offering the merest hint of permanency. There were - and still are - high hopes for Tindall, Guscott's successor at Bath, but the young Yorkshireman's considerable defensive attributes are counter-balanced by a lack of star quality in attack. Guscott spent years doing very little in the England midfield, but he never failed to disconcert the opposition. Tindall does not inspire anything like the same panic on the other side of half-way.

If England are to build on their Bloemfontein victory and maximise their undoubted potential, Woodward has to get this one absolutely right. He may not have the faintest idea of who does what to whom and when in the front row but, as a connoisseur of the art of the No 13, it will not have escaped his notice that the Australians, the one side with an outside centre of genuine world class, won the World Cup last November and a first Tri-Nations title during the summer. Daniel Herbert, a predatory Queenslander without a single conciliatory cell in his body, was a major contributor in both tournaments; indeed, he was probably the stand-out player in the Tri-Nations. He will be at Twickenham in eight weeks' time and will ask some very serious questions of whoever goes in against him.

Will it be Johnston? Probably, although Woodward has an intriguing array of options. To begin with, he might back Tindall on the basis that his last appearance for England, as opposed to his recent outings at club level, was a conspicuous success. The Bath man was not fully fit - during the warm-up at the Free State Stadium he looked to be struggling to an alarming degree - yet he got through more hard labour than Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag. His chasing game, not least from Jonny Wilkinson's re-starts, was as good as anything England have produced in aeons. But the fact remains that for all the weapons-grade possession churned out by Martin Johnson's forwards, England failed to cross the Springbok line. Something is not clicking in the red-rose back division in its current configuration.

Then there is Greenwood, as keen as mustard following his move back to Harlequins from Leicester and running in tries by the truckload. "If I was Woodward, I'd play Will in his optimum position of inside centre and shift Catt to the outside position," says Mark Evans, the chief executive at Quins. "Will is playing very, very well; if you think back to his performances for the Lions in '97, he's now getting somewhere close. Anyone with five tries in five games must be doing something right, that's for sure." But Evans, who first promoted Johnston's cause at Saracens, also rates the new boy. "He's a handful, in most senses of the word: very physical, a hard runner in attack. I have to say that he's come on enormously over the last year or so."

Of course, the more Woodward listens to the Premiership coaching fraternity, the more trees appear in the jungle. Dean Richards, the director of rugby at Leicester, is a big promoter of Leon Lloyd, who won a first cap off the bench in Pretoria during the summer. Another of Lloyd's public supporters is the Australian Pat Howard, who plays alongside him in the Tigers' midfield - and Howard really does know his onions when it comes to centre threequarters. Meanwhile, up in Newcastle, Rob Andrew believes Jamie Noon, the England Under-21 centre, is a Test performer of the none too distant future, a view underpinned by Noon's excellent turn at the Recreation Ground in Bath six days ago.

But for the time being, Tindall the custodian and Johnston the bottle-blond challenger are the main protagonists, with Greenwood a wild card of considerable potency. Tindall and Johnston go head to head when Bath welcome Saracens to The Rec a week tomorrow, and the England selectors have already booked their seats in the riverside stand. Rugby is an 80-minute game, and 80 minutes can make or break an international career.

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