More questions than answers for Johnson
January 12, 2009
Will England manager Martin Johnson be able to revitalise his squad ahead of the Six Nations? © Getty Images
Delon Armitage Steffon Armitage Matt Banahan Danny Cipriani Mark Cueto Nick Easter Ben Foden Martin Johnson Ugo Monye Mathew Tait
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.
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:
And who's under pressure?
2008-09 Elite Player Squads (named July 1, 2008)