England v Wales, Six Nations, February 6
Johnson opts for bold approach
February 2, 2010
Matthew Tait returns to the England midfield for the clash with Wales this weekend © Getty Images
England manager Martin Johnson has thrown down the gauntlet to his Six Nations rivals with a bold team selection for their Championship opener against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday.
Mathew Tait makes his first England start at outside centre since the 2007 Rugby World Cup final and Harlequins' Danny Care is restored at scrum-half. Delon Armitage is back at fullback after missing England's miserable autumn series while Nick Easter also returns at No.8 in one of six changes to the team beaten by New Zealand in their last outing. Centre Riki Flutey was set to join them until a thigh injury in training ended his chances of an international return. As a result Toby Flood gets the nod at inside centre with newcomer Shotayne Hape drafted onto the bench.
An unprecedented injury list hampered England's November campaign that saw them lose to Australia and the All Blacks either side of an unimpressive showing in victory against Argentina. And in response to a woeful return of one try in those three matches, Johnson has attempted to restore England's cutting edge.
Selection offers Tait another opportunity to prove his international credentials against the same side he made his high-profile debut against in 2005. Since then he has failed to cement a regular place, under a succession of coaches, despite long being hailed as one of the most gifted players of his generation. The 23-year-old has been shunted around the back line, filling on the wing and at fullback but has never really given a run in his preferred 13 jersey except for at the 2007 World Cup. He has made just one England start since the 2007 final loss to South Africa - at fullback against New Zealand on the 2008 summer tour - with his last eight caps have all been as a replacement.
"We have talked about what we want to do. We were maybe a little bit too prescriptive in the autumn and there were reasons for that. We know we have got to be more effective," explained Johnson. "We trust the guys to go out and play. Mat Tait is a massive talent and an instinctive player. He can also defend very well and he has a good kicking game.
"Danny is probably the best running nine that we have. He is playing very well and he is the best guy for what we want to do on Saturday. The guys have got to make the instinctive calls within the pressures of a Test match and we trust them to do that. When the opportunities are there we have to be able to see them and take them.
"We were always thinking about using Tait's talents on the field. He has a great all-round game, kicking, attacking and he is under-rated in defence. It is good to get him on the pitch," said Johnson. "Tait has been through a heck of a lot. He is just coming up to 24. He is a bright, mature guy. He understands what he has got to do. He will play the game as he sees it."
Up front, Tim Payne has retained the loose-head jersey despite his recent struggles with Wasps and David Wilson returns at tight-head with Dylan Hartley at hooker. The uncapped Leicester prop Dan Cole is on the bench.
Speaking at the original team announcement, Johnson welcomed Flutey, Armitage and Easter back into the side after injury ruled them out of England's autumn plans. "It is good to get them back," said Johnson. "With Riki and Delon, we picked them all through last year and they took their chance. It was a blow to lose Riki in the autumn. He has trained really well over the last 10 days and fitted right back in. Nick's leadership has been vital for us. He is a strength in that area and it is nice to get him back into the group because he is playing well for Harlequins."
Tait offers England a sharper attacking midfield threat to Dan Hipkiss, who he has replaced, and Johnson is confident his defence is solid enough to deal with a Welsh midfield set to include Jamie Roberts. "There has always been a lot of speculation with Mat. Last season he had his injury issues and he then fitted on to the bench in the Six Nations," said Johnson. "It is a close call. He is a different player to Dan Hipkiss but he has a good all round game. His defence is under-rated."
Johnson confirmed Northampton's promising lock Courtney Lawes was not considered because of a slight groin injury.
England team to play Wales in the Six Nations Championship at Twickenham on Saturday, kick-off 5pm:
D Armitage (London Irish); M Cueto (Sale Sharks), M Tait (Sale Sharks), T Flood (Leicester), U Monye (Harlequins); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Wilson (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), J Haskell (Stade Francais), L Moody (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: S Thompson (Brive), D Cole (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), S Armitage (London Irish), P Hodgson (London Irish), S Hape (Bath), B Foden (Northampton).