The good: squad strengths
Back three: Johnson must look to Northampton
When it comes to scoring tries, England are locked into a "once in a blue moon" phase: during the November internationals, they managed only a single score – Matt Banahan's slightly fortunate late finish against Argentina – in three matches. Yet the back three, home to rugby's natural finishers, are among the least of the problems facing Martin Johnson as he pieces together his 32-man squad for the Six Nations Championship.
Delon Armitage, the beautifully balanced London Irish full-back, was out of circulation in the autumn, and England missed every hair on his head. (Indeed, Ugo Monye lost whatever was left of his own hair over the course of a grisly afternoon in the No 15 shirt, which he can never wear again, for club or country). With Armitage fit and firing once more and Mark Cueto of Sale operating at a high level, things look much brighter – especially with the likes of Ben Foden, the ultra-rapid counter-attacker from Northampton, pushing for inclusion. Foden's colleague at Franklin's Gardens, the free-scoring wing Chris Ashton, is the man making the real waves, however. If form means anything, he should be given a place ahead of Banahan, the destitute man's Jonah Lomu.
Best, but bold, choice for Johnson Chris Ashton
Scrum-half: Plenty of options at No 9
England travelled to the 2007 World Cup with next to nothing in the No 9 locker. Shaun Perry? Neither skilful enough, nor knowing enough to compensate. Peter Richards? Too much of a sevens specialist. Andy Gomarsall? A veteran who rose to the challenge of saving his country' skin, while failing to suggest for a moment that he was anything other than a make-do-and-mend merchant. A little over two years on, Johnson has Danny Care and Paul Hodgson, Harry Ellis and Richard Wigglesworth, Joe Simpson and Ben Youngs – not to mention the versatile Foden, should injuries really kick in.
Both Ellis, probably Johnson's favourite, and the exceedingly rapid Simpson are struggling with injury, but there are still options available. If the selectors are really bold, they will send immediately for the 20-year-old Youngs, who needs time-wasting exposure at second-string Saxons level in the way Mozart needed to sit his piano grades. Hodgson, a clever game manager, should start the Six Nations, but romantics would pay good money to see the Leicester newcomer in situ by the end of it.
Best, but bold, choice for Johnson Ben Youngs
Back row: Ball-players a-plenty to help Moody
Lewis Moody is in blinding form: indeed, he must be counted among the half-dozen best loose forwards in the world without the ball. He is not quite so brilliant with the ball, but every side needs a selfless, Trojan-like workaholic prepared to chase and harry and irritate and tackle all day long and through the night. The problem comes when England choose other non-footballers alongside him. Fortunately, there is no need for them to do so, even in the continuing absence of the eternally injured Tom Rees.
Tom Croft is a player. So too is Nick Easter, the Harlequins No 8, although his poor days are very poor indeed. It would be nice to think that the highly-skilled Luke Narraway of Gloucester, who performed so strikingly in adversity on the benighted tour of New Zealand in 2008, might be granted another opportunity, but there is no obvious likelihood of an early promotion from the Saxons squad, especially with the Paris-based James Haskell making moves to re-establish his credentials as an international back-rower during the autumn series.
If England are vulnerable in this area, it is at open-side in the event of something happening to Moody, whose gung-ho style almost invites injury. The management have already tried Steffon Armitage of London Irish, without finding a way of bringing his game-breaking qualities into play. He does make things happen, though, and in any enlightened organisation, being different should work for him rather than against.
Best, but bold, choice for Johnson Steffon Armitage
The bad: squad weaknesses
Midfield: Search is on for that crucial spark
It used to be the way of it that a team could go a very long way in rugby without moving the ball beyond the outside-half – or, in some cases, beyond the scrum-half. The game doesn't work like that any more, thank the lord, and as a result, the most successful sides generate their ideas, call their shots and score their tries through a three-man think tank in midfield. England do not have a three-man think tank. They do not even have a one-man think tank, for whatever Jonny Wilkinson meant to his country during the great days, he seldom contributed much in the way of mind-stretching ideas. No longer surrounded by the Matt Dawsons, Will Greenwoods and Mike Catts of this world, he is struggling to keep up with the zeitgeist, as currently defined by New Zealand and Australia.
This area is a serious worry for Johnson, to the extent that Johnson may not be the right man to address it. Last time out, he dropped the most imaginative midfielder in his squad, Shane Geraghty, for the least imaginative, Ayoola Erinle. Why? Because Erinle offered feet and inches, pounds and ounces. In short, the manager picked someone to stop the All Blacks playing, rather than to play some rugby of his own.
Toby Flood, fit again after a long spell of injury hassle, seems certain to return to national colours, which at least gives England a shaft of light to go with the shade. Riki Flutey should be back too. Might this be bad news for Geraghty? It must be hoped not. Rather, Johnson should cast his net wide on the brains-trust front by recalling the errant Danny Cipriani, while taking a very close look at the celebrity playmaker's close friend and colleague, Dominic Waldouck. These are challenging players, but then, England's misfiring midfield is not nearly challenging enough.
Best, but bold, choice for Johnson Danny Cipriani
Up front: Time to take Cole to Twickenham
Tim Payne's horribly public scrummaging problems in recent weeks have given England a migraine-sized headache, for however much rugby changes, it will always be well nigh impossible to win a match without a set-piece worthy of the name. With the current first-choice loose-head prop struggling to hold his end up and three more of the usual suspects – Andrew Sheridan of Sale, Phil Vickery of Wasps and the age-old Leicester hard-head Julian White – incapacitated by injury, it is time for the shock of the new.
OK, so David Flatman made his England debut as long ago as 2000. But if the Bath loose-head specialist counts as old wine, he is at least marketing himself in a new bottle. Now that the promising Jon Golding of Newcastle has bust a rib at precisely the wrong moment, there seems little point in ignoring the most dependable scrummager in the Premiership.
Flatman's club colleague David Wilson is certain to make the cut. The second tight-head prop could be Duncan Bell, yet another Bath-ite, who played in the autumn, supported by Paul Doran-Jones of Gloucester. However, the uncapped Dan Cole of Leicester is the man currently ripping up every tree in the forest, and while playing international rugby is very different from playing with your mates, he has done enough to merit promotion.
Best, but bold, choice for Johnson Dan Cole
Second row: Lawes can restore red-rose heart
If, over the course of many decades, England supporters could guarantee a top-notch performance in one area of the side, it was in the boilerhouse of the scrum. Marques and Currie, Beaumont and Colclough, Ackford and Dooley, Johnson and whoever – Grewcock, Archer, Kay, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all... these were magnificent second-row pairings who refused to be bossed around.
How times have changed. Steve Borthwick, the England captain, receives rave reviews from many of the players he leads and is considered the ultimate professional by those charged with coaching him, but he has yet to stamp his personality on match-day events to the satisfaction of his many critics outside the camp. Louis Deacon, meanwhile, continues to prosper in the Premiership as the beating heart of a superb Leicester pack while failing to reproduce this level of performance on behalf of his country. Simon Shaw? The fact that he commands a place at 36 says all that needs saying about England's predicament.
There are those at London Irish who cannot understand Nick Kennedy's ostracism, and those at Sale who fear the exciting teenager James Gaskell will be fast-tracked too soon. Johnson plucked the Northampton youngster Courtney Lawes from the back end of nowhere in November, but declined to give him a start. The manager simply must stick with him now, despite Shaw's return from injury.
Best, but bold, choice for Johnson Courtney LawesReuse content