Six Nations
Johnson rings the changes for France clash
March 17, 2010
England's Jonny Wilkinson limps off injured, Scotland v England, Six Nations, Murrayfield, Edinburgh, Scotland, March 13, 2010
England's Jonny Wilkinson limps out of the clash with Scotland last weekend - he will begin the clash with France on the bench © Getty Images

England manager Martin Johnson has wielded the axe for his side's final Six Nations clash with France at the Stade de France in Paris.

Toby Flood will start at fly-half ahead of Jonny Wilkinson in one of six changes to the side which drew 15-15 with Scotland at Murrayfield last weekend. The only previous occasions when Wilkinson was dropped from the England team were for Paul Grayson at the 1999 World Cup and for Danny Cipriani in the 2008 Six Nations. Wilkinson suffered a heavy blow to the head at Murrayfield and was forced from the field, but has been passed fit after monitoring from the England medics and is named on the bench.

Flood made a difference to England's laboured attacking game when he came on at Murrayfield and will look to unleash a revamped back line which features Ben Foden, debutant winger Chris Ashton and Mike Tindall. Foden gets his long-awaited chance to start at fullback after two eye-catching cameo appearances off the bench. The off-form Delon Armitage has dropped out of the squad altogether.

Ashton has scored 19 tries in 25 games for Northampton this season and will make his Test debut on the wing in place of Ugo Monye, who damaged his neck at Murrayfield. Tindall, who has made three starts for Gloucester after four months out with a hamstring injury, returns to the England team in place of Mathew Tait at outside centre.

The axe has also fallen on James Haskell, who slips to the bench with Lewis Moody back in the starting XV at openside flanker with Joe Worsley moving to blindside. Simon Shaw reclaims his place in the second row from Louis Deacon after missing the Scotland game through injury.

England captain Steve Borthwick was named in the team but he remains a doubt as he continues to struggle with a knee injury. Borthwick missed training today and will spend two days with his leg in a brace. Stade Francais lock Tom Palmer has been drafted into the squad as cover in case Borthwick fails to recover in time.

"Steve Borthwick won't train today. His injury was a little bit more serious than first thought," said Johnson. "I hoped the scan he went for yesterday would be clear but it showed something. He will be in a brace for two days and assessed again tomorrow."

Borthwick, who runs the England lineout, has captain England in every Test since Johnson was appointed as team manager and he is frustrated at having to wait. "We want to deal in a black and white world but in medicine things aren't black and white," he said.

Johnson knows who he would appoint as captain if Borthwick was ruled out, with Harlequins number eight Nick Easter the favourite to be chosen from a senior leadership group that also includes Mike Tindall, Mark Cueto and Lewis Moody. "We know who will captain the team if that happens," said Johnson. "I was talking to Steve about it and the good thing is that there is a core leadership group. If you are relying on one guy for your leadership you are vulnerable by definition.

"Lewis has stood out whether he's playing or not, Nick Easter is part of that and Dylan Hartley is growing into it. Simon Shaw and Joe Worsley add to that as experienced players, Toby Flood is growing into it and Mike Tindall adds to it."

Johnson explained that Wilkinson was relegated to the bench after a week spent passing the necessary cognitive tests and he is excited at giving Flood the chance. "Jonny took a number of bangs and heavy blows. We need at least two players in every position and we would have been happy to pick Toby in every game so far," he said.

But Johnson insisted Wilkinson remains central to England's 2011 World Cup plans. "Jonny is still a world-class player. If I thought Jonny was on the decline, I wouldn't have picked him for our last seven internationals," said Johnson. "There's not many players in world rugby who could have dropped that goal against Ireland in the last 10 minutes.

"I'm sure Jonny will be disappointed he's not starting but he's a team player. The guys on the bench will be playing in the last quarter and that's the most important quarter of the game. We need at least two players in every position and we would have been happy to pick Toby in every game so far. Toby has been an on-field general for us in the past two years. He is graduating into the leadership camp for us as he gets more experience. Ahead of a World Cup, he needs to play in that position over the next 18 months as well as Jonny."

Flood, who was Wilkinson's understudy at Newcastle, played fly-half against France at Twickenham last year when England scored five tries in 42 minutes and routed Les Bleus 34-10. But on that occasion Wilkinson was not fit.

"It's a big honour for me to go out there and play (number) 10 for England," said Flood. "Getting picked ahead of a guy who is ultimately world class and has been the leader of the team in that position for a long, long time is great. By no means does that mean he is finished though because we all know how hard he bites when he gets batted down.

"We've all been dropped, obviously he's been dropped less than others, but it's about how you act in the dark times that makes you the person you are. He came up and said, 'If there's anything you need, let me know'. He's shown a huge amount of character."

Tindall's return means England will tackle France with the same midfield combination - with Flood at fly-half and Riki Flutey at inside centre - that beat Les Bleus comfortably at Twickenham last year. Bastareaud's selection in the French squad was clearly key to Tindall's return and Johnson admitted it was a harsh call on Tait, who has had little chance to show his attacking prowess.

"Mike coming into the centre is a tough call on Taity, who hasn't done much wrong but Mike brings a physical edge to our midfield," said Johnson "And Ben's form has been so good we have included him at fullback. Delon has not been playing as well as he can. That was a good call for Ben, who is playing very well. Chris Ashton's form has been very good."

England have beaten France in each of their last three meetings, including twice in Paris in the 2008 Six Nations and the 2007 World Cup semi-final. But the French have been comfortably the best team in the championship this year and can wrap up a Grand Slam with a win on Saturday evening.

"There is pressure on France, they want to win the Grand Slam. They have been the form team and they will want to finish it off," said Johnson. "Our motivation is not so much to stop them but we have pride every time we play. This is a huge game for England. Going to Paris is big-time rugby."

England: B Foden (Northampton); M Cueto (Sale Sharks), M Tindall (Gloucester), R Flutey (Brive), C Ashton (Northampton); T Flood (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins).

Replacements: S Thompson (Brive), D Wilson (Bath), L Deacon (Leicester), J Haskell (Stade Francais), B Youngs (Leicester), J Wilkinson (Toulon), M Tait (Sale Sharks).


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