With an impeccable sense of dramatic timing and a cheerful disregard for selectorial orthodoxy, the England manager Clive Woodward yesterday relegated two of the outstanding players in world rugby – Martin Johnson, the national captain, and Austin Healey, who harbours delusions of captaincy – to the replacements' bench for this weekend's Six Nations finale with Italy in Rome. Lawrence Dallaglio, back in the pink after 11 months of injury trauma, is also among a panel of substitutes fit to represent a World XV against Planet Zog.
Woodward insisted nothing should be read into Johnson's failure to make the starting cut after missing the 50-point victory over Wales through suspension. He was, however, pointedly silent on the Healey issue. Jason Robinson's recovery from an abdominal strain and Dan Luger's hot performance against the Welsh mean the Leicester Lip pays the price for a series of below-par displays at both club and international level.
Neil Back will continue to lead the side and wins his 50th cap on Sunday – a landmark moment that will leave him within eight Test appearances of the Yorkshireman Peter Winterbottom, England's most decorated flanker. "Neil made an excellent job of captaining the side against Wales 10 days ago, and against Australia at the end of last year," Woodward said last night. "I had no hesitation in making him captain for this game."
The manager went on to indicate that Johnson would be given a substantial run at the Stadio Flaminio. "My second row selection is based purely on the fact that I want to see Danny Grewcock and Ben Kay play together again," he said. This explanation cannot have made Johnson feel any less confused, though. When the Leicester lock was embroiled in the interminable disciplinary rumpus surrounding the punch he landed on the Saracens hooker Robbie Russell in mid-February, Woodward ignored countless legions of self-appointed rugby moralists and picked his captain for the matches against Ireland and France. Now there is no public debate over his availability, Johnson finds himself on tracksuit duty. Strange.
Dallaglio's high-speed rehabilitation was more predictable, especially as he played a full part in Wasps' unexpected Premiership victory over Leicester three days ago. The popular Londoner has been training with the red rose squad for some weeks, and his authority in the dressing room remains an essential ingredient in the England mix.
Lewis Moody, the young Leicester flanker given his head against Wales, will be feeling the heat, but competition for places is no bad thing with the 2003 World Cup beginning to loom large in Woodward's thoughts.
As expected, Julian White of Bristol continues at tight head for the injured Phil Vickery, while Will Greenwood and Mike Tindall are retained at centre. The other casualties of Woodward's latest burst of experimentation are on the fringes. Joe Worsley, who filled in for Dallaglio with some success last autumn, is out in the cold, as are Martin Corry and Iain Balshaw. The latter, passed over as a result of Healey's demotion, must wonder what day of the week it is. Picked by Woodward when miles out of form, his reward for a brave and committed display for Bath last weekend is a run-out with the A team.
France, who will wrap up a third Grand Slam in six years if they beat Ireland in Paris on Saturday, have recalled the outstanding tight-head prop from Stade Français, Pieter de Villiers, who missed the recent victory over Scotland through injury. De Villiers replaces Jean-Baptiste Poux of Narbonne. Four other players – David Bory, Fabien Galthie, Serge Betsen and Imanol Harinordoquy – were under treatment for assorted ailments yesterday, but are not expected to miss the game.
Ireland, meanwhile, have brought everyone's favourite hooker, Keith Wood of Harlequins, back into their front row for the final outing of the campaign.
Wood proved his fitness at club level last weekend and replaces Shane Byrne of Leinster at the sharp end. Rob Henderson, his fellow 2001 Lion, is also in the starting line-up, so John Kelly of Munster misses out despite his two debut tries against Italy in the last round of matches.
SIX NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP TEAMS
ENGLAND (v Italy): J Robinson (Sale); D Luger (Harlequins), W Greenwood (Harlequins), M Tindall (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens); G Rowntree (Leicester), S Thompson (Northampton), J White (Bristol), D Grewcock (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), N Back (Leicester, capt), R Hill (Saracens). Replacements: D West (Leicester), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps), M Dawson (Northampton), C Hodgson (Sale), A Healey (Leicester).
FRANCE (v Ireland): N Brusque (Biarritz); A Rougerie (Montferrand), D Traille (Pau), T Marsh (Montferrand), D Bory (Montferrand); G Merceron (Montferrand), F Galthié (Stade Français); I Harinordoquy (Pau),O Magne (Montferrand), S Betsen (Biarritz), O Brouzet (Northampton), F Pelous (Stade Toulouse), J-J Crenca (Agen), R Ibañez (Castres), P De Villiers (Stade Français). Replacements: O Azam (Gloucester), J-B Poux (Narbonne), D Auradou (Stade Français), R Martin (Stade Français), P Mignoni (Béziers), F Gelez (Agen), J Marlu (Montferrand).
IRELAND (v France): G Dempsey (Terenure); S Horgan (Lansdowne), B O'Driscoll (Blackrock), R Henderson (Young Munster), D Hickie (St Mary's); D Humphreys (Dungannon), P Stringer (Shannon); P Clohessy (Young Munster), K Wood (Harlequins, capt), J Hayes (Shannon), G Longwell (Ballymena), M O'Kelly (St Mary's), S Easterby (Llanelli), D Wallace (Garryowen), A Foley (Shannon). Replacements: S Byrne (Blackrock), P Wallace (Blackrock), P O'Connell (Young Munster), K Gleeson (St Mary's), G Easterby (Llanelli), R O'Gara, J Kelly (both Cork Constitution).Reuse content