More questions than answers for Johnson
Graham Jenkins
January 12, 2009
England Team Manager Martin Johnson looks on during the match between England and South Africa at Twickenham in London, England on November 22, 2008.
Will England manager Martin Johnson be able to revitalise his squad ahead of the Six Nations? © Getty Images

The dawn of a new year is traditionally the time to purge yourself of a bad habit or two and England manager Martin Johnson may well be amongst the masses embarking on a painful but all too necessary detox as he looks to revitalise his charges.

England's iconic leader resumes his quest to return his side to the top of the world this week when he announces his revised elite squads. The pressure is on to halt England's slide into obscurity with a pressing urgency to shake off a lacklustre showing in the autumn when they were found wanting in every department against the Tri-Nations giants. A similar return against their northern hemisphere rivals in the Six Nations must be avoided but it will take more than some herbal fusion colon-cleansing tea and a good dose of vitamins to reinvigorate his demoralised squad.

At first glance, Johnson's hands appear to be tied with only five form-based revisions allowed to each of the two squads (England and Saxons) announced to much fanfare last July and tweaked in October. Such constraints will cause concern amongst those who would prefer wholesale changes in response to what were demoralising losses to Australia and New Zealand and a record reverse at the hands of South Africa.

The average fan would be infuriated to hear that red tape could prevent Johnson fielding his strongest possible side but the truth is that in such circumstances allowances would surely be made by Premier Rugby who hold the key to any such decision. Either way, if Johnson can't conjure a winning side from the 64-man plus talent pool at his disposal then England really do have problems. As has been raised elsewhere in the media this week - England have a larger player pool, more time together and greater financial resources than anyone else so are struggling when it comes to excuses for failure.

In reality, Johnson has a little more leeway thanks to injuries, suspensions, retirements and more obscure 'nominated position' issues. For example long-term injuries to flanker Tom Rees and lock Tom Palmer allow additional replacements to be considered while centre Dan Hipkiss and scrum-half Peter Richards are also under an injury cloud. And let us not forget the "walking medical dictionary" that is Jonny Wilkinson who remains sidelined.

Elsewhere, suspension will see scrum-half Harry Ellis stripped of game time before the Championship kick-off and Josh Lewsey opted to retire from international rugby last month - both providing yet more room for manoeuvre for Johnson.

"It will take more than some herbal fusion colon-cleansing tea and a good dose of vitamins to revitalise his charges."

Changes ahead of the autumn internationals saw fly-half Danny Cipriani, flanker Michael Lipman and fullback Nick Abendanon drafted into the elite squad at the expense of Wilkinson, Lewis Moody and Tom Varndell. In addition, fullback Delon Armitage, scrum-half Paul Hodgson, winger Ugo Monye and No.8 Nick Easter also joined the group as cover for injured players with three of them subsequently featuring strongly.

Wilkinson's enforced absence should see Cipriani retained and Lipman may benefit from Rees' injury and secure a permanent promotion. Armitage, Easter and Monye can also expect to be retained too but under what criteria? Only the authors of the original agreement could really tell you.

Making his task a little easier is the fact there are not a lot of players outside the England/Saxons pool knocking at the door with genuine claims to join the party - not surprising you may say considering the scatter-gun approach to the original squad selection and the proliferation of foreign talent in the Premiership. Johnson does not strike you as the kind of person for impulsive decisions so do not expect wholesale changes. Last month he hinted he would largely keep faith with his original selections and any major surgery would surely undermine his original thinking last year.

His hope will be that the players learn from the lessons they were handed in November and grow together as a side. But time is not a luxury England coaches are afforded - never mind their Teflon-like reputations.

As in the autumn, Johnson's selection may not be the end of the story, merely the next chapter with two bruising rounds of Heineken Cup and European Challenge Cup action on the agenda before his side comes together for their Championship opener. Time will tell what toll they take.

So, who deserves a look in? Here's a few of the names in the mix:

Matt Banahan
Bath's powerful winger has rampaged across the Premiership stage this season to push his claims for a promotion from the Saxons ranks.

Steffon Armitage
The London Irish flanker, named in the Saxons squad last year, has kicked on this season with a string of impressive performances. "He's the next Neil Back," hailed Exiles player coach Mike Catt.

Ben Foden
The versatile Saints star has produced some timely performances and his ability to provide cover at scrum-half and fullback is a plus.

Mark Cueto
Back to his best form this season and bursting with confidence. "It's the best he's been in a long time," according to Sale boss Philippe Saint-Andre.

Mike Tindall
An England veteran dropped to the Saxons last year but the Gloucester centre is back to his best this season and pushing for a recall.

Nick Easter
Unlucky to miss out on the elite squad but took his opportunity in the autumn to prove his worth and one of a handful of players to emerge with some credit to their name.

Delon Armitage
Promoted from outside the 64-player pool in the autumn and grabbed his opportunity with both hands and will surely retain his spot.

Ugo Monye
An ever-present in the autumn after fate smiled on him and could step up from the Saxons in a permanent basis. A formidable presence in defence and attack

Danny Cipriani
The Wasps fly-half is back to full fitness if not the top of his game but is likely to secure a promotion from the Saxons ranks.

Andy Goode
The Brive fly-half's ability was not in doubt before his move to France's Top 14 where he is the league's top scorer this season. Won last of his nine caps in 2006.

Glen Jackson
The New Zealand-born Saracens fly-half is now England-qualified and is the first to reach the 150 Premiership points mark this season.

And who's under pressure?

Nick Abendanon
Injury wrecked his chances of a debut in the autumn and has yet to find his best form since.

George Chuter
Reports suggest he may be omitted with a three hookers in the squad seen as a luxury.

Jamie Noon
Centre failed to make an impression as a ball carrier in the autumn and under pressure with the Falcons in the Premiership.

Matthew Tait
Injuries have taken their toll on the centre/wing/fullback and has yet to nail down a position with Sale which may count against him.

Jordan Crane
The Leicester Tigers No.8 is under pressure from his back-row rivals Easter and Luke Narraway.

James Simpson-Daniel
Gloucester winger, plagued by injury, is another lacking a good run of form to underlines his credentials.

Unlucky break

Olly Morgan
The Gloucester fullback is arguably the Premiership's player of the season so far and was surely set to be rewarded with an England call until he suffered a broken finger last weekend.

2008-09 Elite Player Squads (named July 1, 2008)


Steve Borthwick (Saracens), George Chuter (Leicester Tigers), Jordan Crane (Leicester Tigers), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers), Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints), James Haskell (London Wasps), Nick Kennedy (London Irish), Lee Mears (Bath Rugby), Lewis Moody (Leicester Tigers), Luke Narraway (Gloucester Rugby), Tom Palmer (London Wasps), Tim Payne (London Wasps), Tom Rees (London Wasps), Simon Shaw (London Wasps), Andrew Sheridan (Sale Sharks), Matt Stevens (Bath Rugby), Phil Vickery (London Wasps)

Olly Barkley (Gloucester Rugby), Danny Care (Harlequins), Harry Ellis (Leicester Tigers), Toby Flood (Leicester Tigers), Riki Flutey (London Wasps), Shane Geraghty (London Irish), Dan Hipkiss (Leicester Tigers), Josh Lewsey (London Wasps), Jamie Noon (Newcastle Falcons), Peter Richards (London Irish), Paul Sackey (London Wasps), James Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester Rugby), Mathew Tait (Sale Sharks), Tom Varndell (Leicester Tigers), Jonny Wilkinson (Newcastle Falcons)

England Saxons

Steffon Armitage (London Irish), Richard Blaze (Leicester Tigers), Louis Deacon (Leicester Tigers), Nick Easter (Harlequins), Jack Forster (Gloucester Rugby), Tom Guest (Harlequins), Jason Hobson (Bristol Rugby), Chris Jones (Sale Sharks), Ben Kay (Leicester Tigers), Michael Lipman (Bath Rugby), David Paice (London Irish), George Skivington (London Wasps), Andy Titterrell (Gloucester Rugby), Joe Ward (London Wasps), David Wilson (Newcastle Falcons), Nick Wood (Gloucester Rugby), Joe Worsley (London Wasps)

Nick Abendanon (Bath Rugby), Anthony Allen (Gloucester Rugby), Matt Banahan (Bath Rugby), Mike Brown (Harlequins), Danny Cipriani (London Wasps), Ben Foden (Northampton Saints), Andy Goode (Leicester Tigers), Paul Hodgson (London Irish), Ryan Lamb (Gloucester Rugby), Ugo Monye (Harlequins), Topsy Ojo (London Irish), David Strettle (Harlequins), Mike Tindall (Gloucester Rugby), Dominic Waldouck (London Wasps), Richard Wigglesworth (Sale Sharks)


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