Fortune favours the brave
January 13, 2010
Will Bath's New Zealand-born centre Shontayne Hape feature for England against Wales? © Getty Images
So far so good. Martin Johnson's squad for the Six Nations will go some way to silencing those critics who spent the autumn bemoaning England's lack of a cutting edge but the real test of his zeal will come when he announces his side for the Championship opener against Wales.
Johnson had to act in an attempt to snap his side out of their creative slumber and in Northampton Saints duo Chris Ashton and Ben Foden he has drafted in two in-form players capable of providing a much-needed spark - given the opportunity. There is also fresh grunt in the shape of Bath's Shontayne Hape and Northampton's Courtney Lawes although both bring a lot more than their sizeable frames into the mix.
The return of the fit-again Delon Armitage, Riki Flutey, Toby Flood, Nick Easter and Lee Mears also means the injury woes that blighted their preparations in the autumn have eased but any relief will be tempered by the realisation that with a relatively clean bill of health comes increased expectation. There can be no excuses this time and that is why Johnson must be bold with his selection and with his game plan.
Johnson looked on in despair during November, often with head in hands, as his side conjured just one try in their three matches. But it appears Johnson's prayers have since been answered in the form of 22-year-old Ashton who has crossed the whitewash 15 times in 16 appearances this season. In that sort of form he could not be ignored and his inclusion in the Saxons squad, and promotion to the elite squad strangely as an injury replacement for prop Phil Vickery, suggests the England management are well aware of their shortcomings and are determined to rectify them. Doubters will suggest he is not the finished article and lacks experience and he certainly faces a stiff learning curve but he has to be given an opportunity and will hopefully feature against the Welsh.
Foden has continued to catch the eye on the Premiership stage this season and is another who has rightly been rewarded for a strong run of form but he may find his way to the England No.15 shirt blocked by Armitage who has battled back from a shoulder injury. Fullback was a specific area of concern in the autumn and the return of Armitage should shore up the back three and with five tries in his previous 11 Tests he is also a welcome attacking weapon. However, Foden deserves an opportunity - and not a repeat of his Test bow and only appearance as a replacement scrum-half against Italy last year.
That Johnson has turned to two rugby league converts to revitalise his squad is of particular interest. Ashton and Hape are relative newcomers to the 15-man-code and join a growing list of former league stars to have made the switch and earned international recognition. Only time will tell if they prove as successful as fellow convert Jason Robinson or as forgettable as Henry Paul and Lesley Vainikolo. Hape's selection was something of a surprise and the former New Zealand rugby league international, who qualifies for England having fulfilled the three-year residency criteria, could yet complete a meteoric rise although Flutey will be favourite to reclaim the No.12 shirt. Johnson is a big fan of Hape but will be hoping Flutey can rediscover a rich vein of form despite only recently returning from injury. Johnson also dropped a hint today that Matthew Tait may well get the nod alongside Flutey with Hape providing cover and competition.
Lawes is another who can expect plenty of game time in the coming weeks to allow Johnson to assess whether he really is as good as many claim. His versatility is also a huge plus especially with strong competition in the back row and limited options in at lock due to Johnson's questionable commitment to captain Steve Borthwick. On that subject, it was interesting to see that the Saracens lock was not confirmed as skipper in what could be seen as a hint that Johnson is at last ready to try a different second row combination and as a result install a new captain.
England, and in particular attack coach Brian Smith, will be under pressure to prove they have learnt from their mistakes. A repeat of the dour displays dished up three months ago will not be acceptable. However, with Northampton fly-half Shane Geraghty relegated to the Saxons squad and Wasps No.10 Danny Cipriani not deemed worthy of a recall just yet, he has been stripped of two of the most creative players at England's disposal. Instead the focus falls on incumbent Jonny Wilkinson who looks set to hold off the challenge of Flood for the starting berth.
Wilkinson performed dutifully but not sensationally in the autumn, a victim of a conservative approach that left him too deep on too many occasions. If England are serious about reasserting themselves on the international stage then Wilkinson, or Flood, need to be granted freedom of expression. But Johnson may struggle to throw off his own conservative shackles and his current preferences at No.10 only heighten those fears.
It would be a shame to come this far down the road to redemption only to have second thoughts and turn back because at the end of it lies potential glory at Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand. He has taken one bold step with his squad selection and he must take one more with his team and then ensure his players have the confidence to simply play like they can. Fortune favours the brave.
England Senior squad:
Forwards: S Armitage (London Irish), S Borthwick (Saracens), J Crane (Leicester), T Croft (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), J Haskell (Stade Francais), C Lawes (Northampton), L Mears (Bath), L Moody (Leicester), T Payne (Wasps), S Shaw (Wasps), A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), S Thompson (CA Brive), J White (Leicester), D Wilson (Bath)
Backs: D Armitage (London Irish), C Ashton (Northampton), M Banahan (Bath), D Care (Harlequins), M Cueto (Sale Sharks), H Ellis (Leicester), T Flood (Leicester), B Foden (Northampton), R Flutey (CA Brive), S Hape (Bath), D Hipkiss (Leicester), P Hodgson (London Irish), U Monye (Harlequins), M Tait (Sale Sharks), J Wilkinson (Toulon)
England Saxons Squad:
Forwards: David Attwood (Gloucester), Duncan Bell (Bath), George Chuter (Leicester Tigers), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers), Alex Corbisiero (London Irish), Phil Dowson (Northampton Saints), Ben Kay (Leicester Tigers), Nick Kennedy (London Irish), Matthew Mullan (Worcester Warriors), David Paice (London Irish), Tom Rees (London Wasps), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Andy Saull (Saracens), George Skivington (London Wasps), Dan Ward-Smith (London Wasps), Rob Webber (London Wasps), Nick Wood (Gloucester), Ben Woods (Leicester Tigers)
Backs: Chris Ashton (Northampton Saints), Brad Barritt (Saracens), Danny Cipriani (London Wasps), Shane Geraghty (Northampton Saints), Charlie Hodgson (Sale Sharks), Stephen Myler (Northampton Saints), Olly Morgan (Gloucester), Paul Sackey (London Wasps), Joe Simpson (London Wasps), David Strettle (Harlequins), Dominic Waldouck (London Wasps), Richard Wigglesworth (Sale Sharks), Mickey Young (Newcastle Falcons)