Eye-catching debut for Armitage
November 9, 2008
Armitage produced a near-perfect debut against the Islanders at Twickenham © Getty Images
Martin Johnson is not renowned for handing out gushing compliments to individuals, but he was more than happy to make an exception in the case of Delon Armitage.
"One of the best debuts I've ever seen. Delon was pretty outstanding," was Johnson's considered verdict after he had seen the first England side under his managership beat the Pacific Islanders 39-13 at Twickenham. It was a phrase Armitage should cut out and frame, together with the number 15 shirt in which he was a worthy recipient of the man-of-the-match award.
Armitage's feat was all the more outstanding considering he did not even make Johnson's initial squad of 64 and took to the field on Saturday only because of injuries to Mathew Tait and Nick Abendanon. His confidence in defence and pace and intelligence in attack, which was epitomised by his looping reverse pass for the first of Paul Sackey's two tries, means it is going to be a monumental struggle for anyone to wrestle the full-back shirt off him.
One of England's toughest opponents, Samoan centre Seilala Mapusua, who is also a London Irish teammate of Armitage, thought as much.
Mapusua said: "I'm a big fan of Delon's. I've always believed he had what it takes to step up to the next level. He's got all the skills and the talent. In the England environment he will just improve and get better and better. He's definitely got the hunger and the desire to stay there."
Yet while 24-year-old Armitage was the stand-out success of a patchy England performance in which the five new caps - Armitage, Riki Flutey, Ugo Monye, Nick Kennedy and late replacement Dylan Hartley - all enhanced their reputations, Johnson was swift to bring them down to reality. Namely the much more exacting challenge of confronting Australia next Saturday, followed by South Africa and New Zealand on subsequent weekends.
Johnson said: "We've looked very, very good when we've trained but we didn't put that all out on the field, that's understandable. We looked apprehensive and tentative at times and slowed things down more than we should have done. We have to be better next week. It's another step up in quality. Australia are always very organised, very smart, they have an astute coach and they will test you if they think there are any weak points.
"When you're playing Australia in front of a full house it is all on. We have to find enough to do them."
That means cutting out errors such as Danny Cipriani's kick which was barged down by Seru Rabeni for the Islanders' try and the Cipriani restart which flew straight into touch. Not that anyone should be too critical of England's 21-year-old fly-half. He did score 19 points, including his first international try, and his partnership with the lively Danny Care at scrum-half promises much for the future.
There were also encouraging moments with inside centre Flutey in a second-half which saw Kennedy and Lee Mears go over for tries and Sackey score a second, despite a reckless high tackle from Semisi Naevo which earned the flanker a yellow card. All things considered and while there is much to work on in training, cohesion and a higher intensity being the obvious two, Johnson can be satisfied with his international managerial debut.
The former captain would never admit it but his blood must be positively stirring at the thought of what damage players with the pace of Armitage, Sackey and Monye, the latter who ran 10.6 seconds for 100m at age 16 and used to compete against Olympic relay gold medallist Mark Lewis-Francis, might do when the team has had more time to gel.
Mapusua, however, was happy enough to give his opinion. He said: "England were very quick in the back three, they've got a lot of gas out there. They were causing havoc at the breakdown. The England team is changing drastically. They should take a lot of confidence from the game. They're in good stead for the Aussies."
Now that is a compliment.
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