England Rugby
Johnson awaits Premiership battle
May 8, 2009
England manager Martin Johnson reacts during his side's clash with Scotland, England v Scotland, Six Nations Championship, Twickenham, England, March 21, 2009
England manager Martin Johnson will watch 20 potential summer tourists go into battle this weekend © Getty Images
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England manager Martin Johnson will be watching this weekend's Guinness Premiership semi-finals with bated breath as many of his leading players go head-to-head.

Johnson is in the frustrating position of trying to plan England's summer Test series against Argentina knowing he could lose players both to injury and to the British and Irish Lions.

Leicester fly-half Toby Flood has already been ruled out for six months after damaging his Achilles in the Tigers' Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Cardiff Blues last weekend. And eye-catching performances in this weekend's Premiership semi-finals could propel Leicester flanker Tom Croft and Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care closer to Lions selection.

Ian McGeechan is seeking a replacement for injured Ireland scrum-half Tomas O'Leary and potentially Munster's Alan Quinlan, who faces a disciplinary hearing on Wednesday after being cited for alleged eye-gouging.

Around 20 potential England tourists will be in action tomorrow as the Tigers tackle Bath in the first Premiership semi-final, with Harlequins hosting London Irish in the late kick-off.

"It does affect your plans but guys get injured and you have to be aware of that and know who is next in line and what you are going to do," said Johnson, who will name his squad after the Premiership final on May 19. "We have also got this double-jeopardy where if other guys get injured we could lose players to the Lions.

"I want that to happen to guys if they can get that experience. The best thing our guys can do is to play some tough rugby with England against Argentina and if they are called up they are ready to go."

Flood finished the Six Nations as England's first-choice fly-half and his absence could open the door for Danny Cipriani to make his return to the Test scene. Cipriani requires surgery this summer to have a three-inch pin removed from his ankle and Johnson would not confirm whether the operation will be delayed until after the tour. But he did insist that Flood's injury would not influence the Cipriani decision either way.

"The medical side has to be right and if that happens you can make the decision rugby-wise. I won't put pressure on guys to play if they are not right medically," said Johnson. "Toby was playing very well. He was starting for us and it is a big blow both for England and for Leicester.

"I spoke to Toby this week. This is a big injury. It is never routine coming back from something like that but there are good people with the know-how to get him back and Toby will work hard to get back in shape."

Despite spending the next two weekends on tenterhooks, Johnson has always been a fan of the play-off system. He believes it will help England develop players with the character needed to win the World Cup.

"You get to the knock-out games and it is pressure," he said. "You can't practice playing under that tension and pressure, when you know that one mistake can kill you. If you want to win the Heineken Cup or the World Cup you have to win knockout games."

Johnson today took part in the first leg of the Walk 4 Matt, a 106mile charity walk from Rugby school to Twickenham aimed at raising funds for the Matt Hampson Trust. Hampson was a Leicester and England Under-21 prop until he was left paralysed by a training-ground accident on March 15, 2005.

Johnson, a World Cup-winning captain, is humbled by the courage Hampson has shown since suffering the injury. "It is a tragic thing that happened to Matt. It could have been you, it could have been anyone. Could we have handled it as well as Matt has handled it? Personally I don't think I could have done," said Johnson.

"He has shown enormous courage and he is inspirational in the way he has handled it and I don't say that lightly. We have all been in that situation a thousand times and a thousand times everyone has got up. On this one occasion Matt didn't.

"Why? Who knows? What was the difference? It is probably such a small margin that it is not definable in some ways but the results are catastrophic. People talk about mental strength in playing sport - but to know you have to live with it forever is a very, very difficult thing. I don't know how he has done it - it is the strength of his character."

To donate money to the Matt Hampson Fund text WALK4MATT to 82010. Each text will donate £3.

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