Johnson hails scrum strength
June 24, 2010
England manager Martin Johnson has an enviable strength in depth when it comes to front row talent © Getty Images
England manager Martin Johnson has welcomed the selection headache he faces after his squad rose to the challenge of their recent tour of Australia and New Zealand.
An historic Test victory over the Wallabies in Sydney that ended a southern hemisphere drought dating back to their Rugby World Cup triumph in 2003 was the undoubted highlight of their five-game tour but having dominated nearly every scrum they contested, it was no surprise that Johnson chose to single his front row talent out for praise as the dust settled on the tour.
Dan Cole, the 23-year-old Leicester tighthead, continued his remarkable rise from third choice at Welford Road to guaranteed Test starter as England destroyed Australia's scrum in both Tests. Behind him in the pecking order, David Wilson kept the pressure on while Paul Doran-Jones was nominated by scrum coach Graham Rowntree as the most improved player on tour. On the loosehead, Tim Payne played his best rugby for England and David Flatman was a more than able midweek understudy, while Jon Golding boasts exciting potential.
England will name four props in his 32-man senior elite squad early next month and Johnson must also consider Phil Vickery, Andrew Sheridan and Matt Mullan, who are all fit for the new season. Matt Stevens may also come back into the World Cup equation once his drugs ban ends in the new year. Props are England's pillars of strength in more ways than one.
"We have got a powerful scrummage at that level," said Johnson, as he considered the main strides England had taken during the tour. "Where was Dan this time last year? He has come on tremendously. With Davey and Paul Doran-Jones, the tightheads will all have to travel home on separate planes.
"Steve Thompson has come back and is a big powerful man in the scrum. Tim Payne played some of his best rugby for England over the last two Tests. We have the best depth at loosehead where Dave Flatman has done a very solid job. Jon Golding has been hampered by injury but he looked really good in flashes.
"There is no reason we can't see the best of Andrew Sheridan. He should be hungry, he hasn't played since October. Matt Mullan playing in the first division with Worcester is not ideal but he is still in contention."
England's progress has not been limited to the props, with Courtney Lawes, Dave Attwood and Geoff Parling threatening a changing of the second row guard and along with Tom Palmer increased the pressure on veteran Steve Shaw and the absent Steve Borthwick.
"Promotion for someone is relegation for someone else. But that is the harsh reality of the situation," said Johnson. "Lots of guys have really come through, lots of guys have really stood up as well and will benefit hugely from the experience of coming over here and playing. There will be some learning points for some players to take away and be aware of - but that is what we came for."
One of those players to kick on during the tour was Northampton wing Chris Ashton who crossed for a try in Sydney to cap a rollercoaster of a year that included his England debut and the death of his father.
"It has been a weird year for me, really weird. I don't think I will ever have another one like it," he said, after scoring again in England's midweek defeat to the New Zealand Maori. "To play for England in the Six Nations and then to come out here - which I never thought would happen - and get a win against Australia, I couldn't ask for anything more.
"I have learned so much from all the people around me. I am definitely a better player for this experience. It has been massive for me. I only really knew the Northampton lads before I came on this tour and now I have 39 new mates. They are all great lads and we've got on great. It's been a long trip but I have enjoyed every minute of it.
"It is still a learning curve for me," said Ashton. "I like to think I am getting the hang of it in the Premiership now, but this tour has definitely taken it up a little bit more. That is exactly what a tour like this is for.
"It has been a long season for me, a whole year. I was back in training at the start of June last year because I wasn't even in the Northampton team. I will have a rest now and then get back to it with Northampton and hopefully I can carry on from what I've done this year."