Rugby World Cup
Selection turns up the heat on England
August 23, 2011
Can Johnson's talent-heavy squad produce a World Cup-winning team? © Getty Images
The make-up of England's 30-man Rugby World Cup squad may not have been much of a mystery by the time it was announced on Tuesday, despite the best efforts of the Rugby Football Union, but the same cannot be said for the side that will line up against Argentina in the tournament opener in Dunedin on September 10.
Johnson's latest selection was largely predictable thanks to the form and fitness of certain personnel but naming the strongest XV from that mix is far from straightforward and that must be a huge concern with the sport's showpiece event almost upon us. A re-match with Ireland in Dublin, where their Six Nations Grand Slam dreams were dashed earlier this year, should be an opportunity to fine tune preparations but England are far from the finished article. That game may provide some pointers but it is unlikely to provide all the answers.
Undoubtedly the squad boasts a plenty of talent and just as crucially a wealth of experience including five survivors from the Class of '03 and several more from the never-say-die squad that went surprisingly close to emulating them four years later. But the key to any future success is their ability to gel as a team and with question marks over certain combinations there is evidently work to do.
The primary concern must be the ideal centre pairing. Riki Flutey's omission from the squad may have hogged the headlines but that focus will soon switch to those left to shoulder the midfield burden.
The England management refuse to waiver in their support of Shontayne Hape, the only recognised No.12 in the squad, with veteran Mike Tindall and fresh-faced Manu Tuilagi the other centres in the squad although speedster Matt Banahan may also be called into service. Tuilagi's rocket-fuelled rise from academy player to fully fledged international in a year is impressive and he looks set to cement his ascent to the Test match stage against the Irish.
His likely pairing with Tindall, having partnered the now ousted Flutey in a try-scoring debut against Wales earlier this month, has some exciting potential but is untried. Such a scenario cannot be ideal with the Pumas lying in wait in three weeks time nor can the talk of Toby Flood or Jonny Wilkinson potentially filling the void. Experimentation, or a return to rarely-tried ideas, at this late stage in such a key role does not bode well. Where is the stability of a partnership akin to the Mike Tindall-Will Greenwood pairing that helped propel England to the World Cup crown in 2003? The tried and test dynamism of the Tim Horan and Dan Herbert double act that steered the Wallabies to glory in 1999?
There are of course exceptions, with Frans Steyn's emergence as a world-class talent alongside the ultra-talented Jacque Fourie during the Springboks' march to the 2007 World Cup an obvious example. Tuilagi definitely possesses that rare ability to change a game with a destructive mix of pace and power but he may be a little too raw to expect an impact to rival Steyn's. But the 20-year-old has surprised us more than once in the past 12 months and may do so again.
Competition for places is of course welcome and while that doesn't appear to be the case when it comes to the No.12 shirt there is clear strength in depth elsewhere. Flood's rivalry with Jonny Wilkinson should bring out the best of them as long as Flood can exorcise a few Aviva Stadium demons this weekend. Both will be heavily dependent on who is chosen to play outside them but their identity of their chosen half-back partner will arguably carry more weight.
The injury to scrum-half Danny Care robbed England of what was shaping up as a key weapon in their arsenal. The form No.9 at the back end of the Premiership season, Care looked sharp as he closed in on his World Cup debut. Injury appears to have denied him that career highlight although he has embraced his rehabilitation in the feint hope fate twists again before the tournament reaches its conclusion.
As a result Johnson is left with Ben Youngs as his apparent first choice scrum-half but he is desperately short of game time having undergone knee surgery earlier this year. When fit he can rival the best in the world but it may be a little too much to expect him to hit those levels on his return to action. The other options are the relatively inexperienced Richard Wigglesworth and uncapped Joe Simpson and while more than competent in their roles, you wonder whether they have the temperament to be able to spark England into life on such a high-pressure stage. And Wigglesworth may yet be asked to play an even more influential role as playmaker should Flood or Wilkinson be sidelined through injury.
Thankfully for Johnson and co, there is plenty of reason for hope elsewhere. The pack's dominant displays, in victory and defeat, highlighted an enviable level of physicality and fans can rest assured that should that approach take its toll, with captain Lewis Moody still a concern despite his manager's reassurances over his fitness, then there are others ready and able to step in.
This strength in depth should provide stability at the set piece, although Wales did fire one or two broadsides at scrum time in their recent clashes, and with it should come plenty of ball but can England's backs find the same level of cohesion to make it pay?
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.