Spirit of unity breaks out in England camp

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The Independent Online

The first signs of England's coaching staff drawing their wagons around the recently-appointed manager Martin Johnson were plain for all to see yesterday, even though Johnson himself was nowhere in view. Mike Ford, the defence strategist, enthusiastically extolled the virtues of the new set-up, currently under the temporary command of Rob Andrew, in a manner that left no one in the remotest doubt as to his view of the previous regime, headed by Brian Ashton.

"We're all thinking the same way and we all get along off the field, which helps when you're in camp 24-7," he said. "We challenge each other, but when it comes to the mindset, we're as one." Ouch. If Ashton's ears were not burning, he must have had his head in a bucket of iced water.

Before, during and after last year's World Cup, there was talk of tension between Ashton and his principal lieutenants, Ford and the forwards specialist John Wells. Indeed, the day after the final in Paris, the entire England camp – with the notable exception of Ashton himself, who behaved with complete dignity – seemed to be bitching and backbiting for all they were worth, and in retrospect, there was always a likelihood that the undermining would damage the incumbent beyond repair. Even so, the brutal way in which he was removed from office after the Six Nations Championship created a smell that still clings to the Rugby Football Union, so we can expect plenty more eager expressions of togetherness over the coming weeks and months.

England's immediate business begins with a low-intensity match against the Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday – a game the national team should win by a minimum of 30 points – and continues with next month's two-Test series in New Zealand, which promises to be a tad more competitive. Andrew, the union's director of elite rugby, is running the show until Johnson assumes command on 1 July, and it was he who selected the side for this weekend's fixture.

There are half-a-dozen uncapped players – the London Irish trio of Topsy Ojo, David Paice and Nick Kennedy; the props Nick Lloyd and Jason Hobson, of Saracens and Bristol respectively; the Harlequins flanker Will Skinner – in a starting line-up shorn of players from Wasps and Leicester, who meet in the Premiership final on Saturday, and Bath, whose forces are still recovering from last weekend's European Challenge Cup final victory over Worcester. A second Quins back-rower, Nick Easter, will lead the team.

Mathew Tait has been picked in his favourite position of outside centre, despite being selected as a full-back for the trip to All Black country, while Dylan Hartley, the exciting young Northampton hooker, has a place on the bench ahead of the imminent visit to his homeland (he was born in Rotorua). Hartley would have made last year's World Cup squad had he not picked up a six-month ban for gouging towards the end of the domestic campaign. Great things are expected of him now.

"There is a physicality and an aggression in his play that we need in English rugby," said Wells. "He has matured, both personally and as a rugby player, and he has not been involved in anything like the trouble he was caught up in at the back end of last season. With Dylan and David Paice, we have two talented hookers on our hands. The thing now is to see how they make the step from clubland to England level."

Andrew, a celebrated red rose outside-half, expressed his sympathy for the most recent No 10, Danny Cipriani, who suffered a fracture dislocation of the right ankle on Premiership semi-final day and faces a minimum of six months out of the game. "It's a big blow," Andrew admitted. "To suffer such a serious injury at such a young age at this stage of development – you couldn't have a worse situation, to be honest. The medical bulletins are encouraging, but all we can do is wait and see. We'll keep our fingers crossed."

Cipriani was last night named the Guinness Premiership's Discovery of the Season. The main award of Player of the Year went to the Gloucester back James Simpson-Daniel, ahead of the Bath centre Olly Barkley and the Gloucester flanker Akapusi Qera.

Team to face Barbarians

England (v Barbarians, Twickenham, Sunday, 3pm kick-off): M Brown (Harlequins); T Ojo (London Irish), M Tait (Newcastle), T Flood (Newcastle), D Strettle (Harlequins); C Hodgson (Sale), R Wigglesworth (Sale); N Lloyd (Saracens), D Paice (London Irish), J Hobson (Bristol), C Jones (Sale), N Kennedy (London Irish), L Narraway (Gloucester), W Skinner (Harlequins), N Easter (Harlequins, capt).

Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton), D Wilson (Newcastle), S Hooper (Leeds), T Guest (Harlequins), D Care (Harlequins), P Richards (London Irish), U Monye (Harlequins).

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