Johnson after fair hand from Lions
March 24, 2009
Martin Johnson will be hoping to be able to build on his side's recent resurgence this summer © Getty Images
There will be plenty of debate about who makes the Lions tour until Ian McGeechan's squad is announced on April 21 and that puts the grand old captain of 1997 and 2001 in an odd position. Martin Johnson's first thought will be who is available to him for the strangest of England tours of Argentina - one Test in Manchester, the other somewhere near the Andes - and not on Geech's chances of defeating the Springboks.
Even if - as some predict - no more than four or five England players go with the Lions it will be disruptive to Johnson's plans. More often than not in the summers of his playing days he didn't tour with England: either because he was a Lion or he was being rested, but he will know the score and that he has to lump it even if he doesn't like it.
The main reason it will be disruptive is that England under Johnson have found some continuity in selection, a prime consideration this season given the huge amount of chopping and changing since the 2003 Rugby World Cup. True, it sometimes seems as if some of us rugby pundits would only be happy if a coach picked the same XV week after week after week. In fact, Johnson has been almost as close to it as outside forces would allow him.
A few changes have been forced on him by injury. Tom Rees wrenched a knee playing for Wasps and Michael Lipman was concussed so Steffon Armitage had one go at openside flanker then Joe Worsley got the call. Danny Care twisted an ankle so Harry Ellis started throughout the Six Nations Championship. Jamie Noon stood in at centre until Mike Tindall was fit, and so on.
When it has come to straight choices between personnel, Johnson has made only minor tweaks. If there has been a poor performance (take your pick from a few), he did not rip up the team sheet and start again. Nick Kennedy was hard done by, possibly, to be dropped after his debut in the autumn, and again during the Six Nations but he has started or been on the bench in almost every match under Johnson and must take that as a vote of confidence after years of not being selected for his country despite consistently good displays in the Guinness Premiership.
The No.6 jersey has been shared by James Haskell and Tom Croft. Each will have his supporters; both might be expected to make 2011, though Haskell's imminent departure to Stade Français has thrown a spanner in those works.
The basis of Johnson's team has been fairly straightforward as follows: Delon Armitage at fullback and two from Paul Sackey, Ugo Monye and Mark Cueto on the wings. Tindall and Riki Flutey as centres; Care and Ellis; Andrew Sheridan, Lee Mears and Phil Vickery; Steve Borthwick and Kennedy or Simon Shaw; Nick Easter at No.8.
They have established a certain familiarity with each other; an essential tightness of spirit and understanding which every team needs, especially one struggling to find its feet. Arguably Johnson got lucky with Armitage, who was not even in the wider England squad of 64 last July. It should be recalled though that the London Irishman was injured at the time, and had been selected often for the Saxons before that. Only Johnson knows whether he was always a rival to the fullback contenders who got injured last autumn, Olly Morgan and Nick Abendanon.
Okay, award yourself top marks for spotting the missing link. The only position in which Johnson has noticeably changed tack is fly-half. Danny Cipriani was the choice in the autumn, but it did not go well, and Toby Flood has taken over, with a quick loook-in for Andy Goode. There was a composed and quality display by Flood against Scotland (albeit against moderate opposition) last weekend. He must have relished his run in the team and the position is now his to lose, which may be an example of sport's endlessly fascinating tendency to throw up the ideal outcome out of improbable circumstances.
And there's the rub. Who would have said at the start at the season that Armitage, Flutey, Tindall, Cueto and the versatile Flood would be candidates for the Lions? There could be a big hole in Johnson's back division to face Argentina. Among the forwards, McGeechan and Warren Gatland could fancy Sheridan, Vickery, Lee Mears or Dylan Hartley, Croft, Haskell or Rees; or none of them or more than them.
Just as Johnson and England looked like building some momentum with wins over France and Scotland, along comes a force beyond the manager's control. More disruptive than injuries, loss of form or his own call in selection, the Lions will force him to re-think. Johnson will of course paint this in a positive light - the chance to look at different combinations, youngsters given their chance (a new tight-head prop, perhaps, to rival Vickery and Julian White), and so on.
The reality is that the famous touring team which did so much to push Johnson forward as a world-renowned player and skipper could, for this summer at least, be a pain in the backside.