Relegation to bench a new low for Johnson

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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson has experienced his share of ups and downs this season – up before the Twickenham judiciary for clouting an opponent during a club game, down among the injured dead-beats as England fouled up a perfectly straightforward Grand Slam opportunity in Dublin – but yesterday, his spirits were so low they bordered on the subterranean. The England captain, or ex-England captain as he must now be called, firmly expected to face the Italians in Rome this weekend, and cannot for the life of him work out why he has been dumped on the bench.

"I had no inkling this was on the cards," admitted the Leicester lock, back on the beat after a three-week suspension but passed over for Sunday's Six Nations finale at Stadio Flaminio in favour of his club colleague, Ben Kay, and his partner in the Lions boilerhouse last summer, Danny Grewcock. "There has always been a lot of competition for places in the England second row, and I've always had to fight for my spot. But I did think I'd be back in the side for this one, to be honest."

Johnson tried his damnedest to be philosophical – "There are plenty of guys worse off than me, the Matt Perrys and Martin Corrys, so I'll handle it," he said – but Clive Woodward's latest selectorial depth charge has hurt him. The big, brooding Midlander may have missed a number of red rose games through injury and suspension, but he has not been dropped since 1993, when he lost his place to the returning Wade Dooley after a winning debut against the French.

Woodward, the England manager, made light of his decision not to include Johnson in his starting formation. "I don't really know why everyone is so wound up about this," he said. "I'm Martin's biggest fan, which is why I supported him so vigorously when some people wanted him dropped after the punching incident. But I pick my strongest team for Six Nations matches and on the evidence of the last game against Wales, this is my strongest team. Had Neil Back not been around to captain the side, I might have been swayed more towards Martin. But Neil is around."

The manager did, however, acknowledge that his conversation with Johnson had been a tad uncomfortable. "He gave me his 'eyebrows' look," Woodward shuddered. "Then he said 'Fine' and walked away. He doesn't like being on the bench – nobody likes being there – but he knows selection is never a foregone conclusion. This job is about moving things forward and following the outstanding contributions by Kay and Grewcock against Wales, I want to see them together again this weekend."

If Johnson spent yesterday in the blackest of moods, his predecessor as captain was full of the joys of spring. "I suppose I'm a little surprised to be here this quickly," said Lawrence Dallaglio, fully recovered from the knee injury that threatened his professional future and bursting for some Test action after 10 months of wall-to-wall physiotherapy. "But gauging your fitness after 20 minutes of club rugby against Sale and gauging it after a full 80 against Leicester are two different things, and once I came through that second match my confidence was very high. I won't be as fit as some, but I'll be fresher than most. On balance, that leaves me pretty even with the rest of the squad."

Dallaglio will certainly tour Argentina with England this summer, assuming the International Board sanctions the Rugby Football Union's latest attempt to give its team some meaningful activity following the collapse of the scheduled trip to the Pacific Islands. The likelihood is that England will play a single Test in Buenos Aires and three non-international matches.

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