Armitage targets starting shirt
August 7, 2011
Delon Armitage stakes his claim against Wales at Twickenham © Getty Images
Delon Armitage is determined to keep the England fullback jersey for the Rugby World Cup after successfully relaunching his international career.
Armitage made the most of his first Test start in 17 months as England began their World Cup preparations with a tough 23-19 victory over Wales. The London Irish fullback has got his swagger back and he laid down the gauntlet to rival Ben Foden with an eye-catching performance at Twickenham.
"I felt like I missed a lifetime of rugby but I am back now and ready to go," said Armitage. "I have got that hunger again. I really want to be involved for England. I want that 15 shirt. I am pushing Ben. I want that shirt back and he knows it."
Foden is likely to get his chance to respond in next Saturday's return match at the Millennium Stadium, before England manager Martin Johnson finalises his 30-man World Cup squad on August 22.
There was a time, particularly last season, when doubts hung over Armitage's chances of securing a place on the flight to New Zealand. The 27-year-old had enjoyed an outstanding introduction to international rugby in 2008 and he was unfortunate not to win selection for the Lions tour of South Africa the following summer. But a toxic combination of injury, "broken" confidence, poor form and ill-discipline halted his progress dramatically as Foden made the position his own.
Armitage was banned twice last season, including an eight-week suspension for shoving and abusing an anti-doping official which ruled him out of the Six Nations. But England's management kept the faith and Armitage, solid under the high ball, strong in defence and electric with the ball in hand, repaid them on Saturday.
It was as if Armitage had turned back the clock to the 2008-09 season, when he started in Johnson's first Test having initially not been included in England's 64-man elite squad.
"It did feel like a second start. I was really nervous, it felt like I was starting all over again, a new debut," said Armitage. "When I saw the 15 jersey hanging up it brought back some awesome memories. I love playing rugby, I love playing for England.
"I am pushing Ben. I want that shirt back and he knows it and he knows I will be pushing him all the way. I like that competition. It makes us both better."
Armitage seems certain of a seat on that plane to New Zealand but Johnson wants competition for places to be as fierce as possible, so he was delighted by yesterday's exercise.
"Delon is a Test match player. He just needs to be available for us to play and be in good form," said Johnson. "I have said to him all the way through, if he is in good form he is putting pressure on everyone in the back three. I am glad he has gone well.
"Delon is a pretty tough character, he has a good edge about him. He just needs to be going in the right direction."
Jonny Wilkinson and Danny Care pressed their claims to replace Toby Flood and Ben Youngs as England's first-choice half-back partnership. Of those perceived to be battling for a place in the final 30-man squad, Manu Tuilagi offered a powerful midfield presence and capped his debut with a try.
England need to be careful not to become too predictable in how they used the 20-year-old from Leicester because there is more to his game than just being a battering ram. Simon Shaw made a strong start and Matt Stevens made his presence felt on his return to Test rugby after serving a two-year cocaine ban.
"It is what we wanted - to get out there and play a Test match," Johnson reflected. "We wanted to go and play it in the context of a proper game and win a Test match. We weren't going to treat it as a training game.
"I thought Jonny handled it very well. We got ourselves in a great position but we didn't finish it off. At 20-7 we needed to control the ball but we started to turn the ball over, then we invited them right back onto us. They nearly took that opportunity."
Johnson, who has injury concerns over captain Lewis Moody, will make changes for the trip to Cardiff. He wants his final 30-man World Cup squad to have played in two of England's three August internationals.
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