Johnson throws down gauntlet
May 12, 2010
England manager Martin Johnson has selected a strong squad to tour Australasia next month © Getty Images
As Prime Minister-to-be David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat counterpart Nick Clegg were putting the finishing touches to their joint-bid to return the UK to the ranks of the world's superpowers, England manager Martin Johnson was formalising his own coalition that is also charged with restoring the nation's flagging reputation.
Johnson's side showed glimpses of a refreshingly adventurous future in their final Six Nations bow against France but defeat in that game and a third place finish in the Championship underlined the fact that they remain some way from potential title challengers at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in a little over 16 months time. As a result, the make-up of Johnson's squad for next month's tour of Australasia takes on increased significance as the countdown to the sport's showpiece event gathers speed.
At the end of another gruelling European season, a five-game tour of the southern hemisphere - featuring two Tests against the Wallabies, two matches with the Australian Barbarians and a clash with the New Zealand Maori - is a formidable ask for the country's leading players but none are shirking the opportunity - such is the lire of the World Cup. There is no British & Irish Lions tour to compete for their allegiance and only a handful of injuries have prevented Johnson from taking his strongest possible selection south of the Equator.
But with that kind of strength, heralded by Johnson himself as the most impressive group to leave these shores since 2003, comes expectation. The June international window rarely makes compelling viewing with a contest between battle weary players from the northern hemisphere and their fighting-fit Super 14-based rivals more often than not a mismatch. However, on this occasion there will be no convenient excuse should England fail to at least hold their own and Australia, the loudest critic of those who dare send under-strength squads on tour, will no doubt relish the chance to gauge their own development.
Such is the size of England's tour party that if your name is not among those 44 players heading to Australia and then New Zealand you have good cause to fear for your immediate international future. Five games in 16 days poses several problems in terms of player welfare and a Test side and a midweek selection are likely to emerge in the coming weeks with the clash against the Barbarians later this month set to act as a trial for some. The inevitable rack of injuries that will no doubt plague the side will also open the door for some and have already hindered Johnson's preparations. Centre Riki Flutey, loose-head Andrew Sheridan, lock Louis Deacon, loose-head Matt Mullan and tight-head Phil Vickery are all battling for fitness but it is the continued absence of captain Steve Borthwick that is perhaps the most intriguing.
The Saracens lock was ruled out of the end of the Six Nations and the captaincy passed to flanker Lewis Moody who can surely expect to continue in the role on tour. However, his domestic commitments with title-chasing Leicester could force Johnson to think again for the Barbarians clash falling as it does a day after Premiership finale at Twickenham. Such a scenario could have opened the door to Wasps' Tom Rees, long linked with the honour, but despite returning to fitness and form in recent weeks after a long injury lay-off he must make do with a place with the second-string Saxons. The door may be open for Jonny Wilkinson, Nick Easter or Mike Tindall to take the England reins.
The squad includes nine uncapped players although Bath centre Shontayne Hape is no stranger to the England setup having been drafted into the squad for the Six Nations. Joining him on the plane to Australia will be Wasps' Dan Ward-Smith, Gloucester's Dave Attwood and Leicester's Geoff Parling who will be keen to fill the void left by Borthwick in the second row. There are also fresh faces up front with Newcastle loose-head Jon Golding getting the nod as expected and Wasps hooker Rob Webber. Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie is another riding a wave of form and adulation and all eyes will be on the South African-born player to see if he can transfer his Premiership prowess to the international stage.
In the backs, there is evidence that Johnson and his fellow coaches were heartened by the displays of young guns Chris Ashton and Ben Foden in Paris, who combined well to inject some much-needed zip into proceedings. The inclusion of Wasps' Joe Simpson and Dom Waldouck offer more reason for hope that the England side bound for the World Cup will be one boasting an exciting balance of speed and flair. Simpson's inclusion comes at the expense of the unlucky London Irish No.9 Paul Hodgson who sees his chances slip all the way back to the Saxons.
But for Hodgson and others there remains hope of a return to the elite with the likes of Olly Barkley, David Strettle, David Flatman, Richard Wigglesworth and perhaps most surprisingly Charlie Hodgson all forcing their way back into contention for the forthcoming tour. Hodgson's return to favour in particular is an amazing one having been blamed for England's shortcomings in New Zealand two years ago and subsequently cast aside.
And what of those not selected for the trip? The likes of Saracens centre Bradley Barritt, Saracens fullback Alex Goode, Northampton centre Jon Clarke and his team-mate, flanker Phil Dowson, can all count themselves unlucky to have only made the Saxons squad after outstanding seasons in club colours. Saracens flanker Andy Saull is another who will be on Churchill Cup duty with Johnson happier to reward the likes of the 30-year-old Fourie rather than blood a glut of talented youngsters.
Johnson will be all too aware of the need for his side to kick on from the Six Nations and a failure to provide evidence of such, especially with an impressive armoury at his disposal, will be a huge cause for concern. But a bullish Johnson is ready for the challenge and although his side are unlikely to secure the landslide victory that will offer a ringing endorsement for his policies you sense a workable majority will be his for the taking.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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