Johnson struggles in straitjacket
January 15, 2010
Leicester prop Dan Cole has caught the eye this season but must make do with a place in the England Saxons squad © Getty Images
Back in the dark ages when I was playing international rugby we would have all been gearing up for the Final Trial this weekend.
I forget what England called their teams - 'Whites v Blues' or something equally prosaic but in Wales it was 'The Probables v The Possibles' - or the 'Impossibles' as the hopeful pretenders were usually christened.
Basically, the established Welsh XV from the previous season would take on the next in line and fight (often literally when it came to proving yourself as a front-row forward) to replace the man in possession.
I shall never forget my first trial. I was 21 and had been included in the junior side on the strength of a couple of stand-out performances for London Welsh on the Christmas tour. I was helped by the fact that I had caught a boot in a ruck against Llanelli and was still sporting a big white bandage around my head which made me stand out from the rest.
There was one other thing going for me. My rival for the No.7 jersey was not an established international either. Wales had lost to Australia in the autumn (a national disgrace in those days) and The 'Big Five' - the omnipotent Welsh selectors - had decided in their wisdom that Hayden Morgan, who had played for Wales for the previous eight seasons was history.
The natural successor was Omri Jones, an Aberavon policeman. He might not have been much of a footballer but he was as hard as anthracite and as intimidating as hell. Growling at me dismissively in the first line-out he told me in no uncertain terms my day might arrive sometime in the future but it was certainly not today.
Somebody forgot the script - we Impossibles ripped into the senior side in the first half to such good effect that we led at half-time and, with my white headband glowing like a beacon, I got the nod to swap jerseys with Omri at half-time.
He was apoplectic and after warning me not to expect to survive the second-half unhappily handed over the red top adding that he expected it back after the final whistle.
As in all good fairy tales the Probables turned it round in the second-half and scraped home. It was obviously perfect for me - I'd won both halves - and I won my first cap three weeks later against Scotland having played only half a dozen games for my club.
It was premature and I was definitely not ready but Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies, Delme Thomas and Dai Morris all started in the same season and, despite an appalling start, for once, the selectors kept faith and we all survived to enjoy great success.
Keith Jarrett, another new cap, probably saved our bacon. After three losses we were in danger of becoming the first ever Welsh team to be whitewashed in the Five Nations Championship but, fresh out of school, he came in for the final game against England and scored 19 points including a try playing out of position at fullback so we finished the season on a high.
Of course that could never happen now and more good players probably fell by the wayside than got lucky as I did but looking at the machinations surrounding the announcement of the England squad for the Six Nations on Wednesday left me longing for the chance of romance and a few surprises.
It would be impossible these days because everything is so structured and we are terrified about players being asked to play too much but I reckon Martin Johnson might even have fancied a final trial.
Take the case of Leicester prop, Dan Cole. He is only 22 and is serving an apprenticeship with the England Saxons but judging from his performance against Wasps last weekend England need to find out sooner rather than later whether he can step up to the very top level.
I am very aware that a prop cannot operate in isolation and his demolition of Tim Payne owed a great deal to his comrades in arms in the Leicester pack but it was spectacular - reminiscent of the emergence of Barry Llewellyn and Graham Price in Wales in my time, you immediately knew they were special - and, if I were Johnson, I would want to know if he was ready to be fast-tracked into the Championship - a trial would be the answer.
Instead we have the ludicrous situation where Payne, who looked a broken man by the end of the game, is in the senior squad whilst his tormentor is almost certain to have to stay in the Saxons all season because of the agreement between the Premiership Clubs and the RFU.
I understand that Clubs need to plan for the season and there has to be some sort of dialogue so that they are not suddenly denuded of too many top players. I also understand it is not a question of Cole directly replacing Payne because they play on different sides of the scrum but no other national manager/coach is in a straitjacket like Johnson.
At this stage he is allowed only five form based changes from the squad originally announced last July and might be able to tinker further because of injuries. That means Andrew Sheridan, who will not be able to play until April (by which time he will have missed six months of rugby) is still in the squad - ludicrous.
International rugby is still the showcase - if England are successful the clubs benefit hugely - and all the other countries have mechanisms that give them absolute priority and are not afraid to chuck youngsters in at the deep end. Johnson must be given the same flexibility for two reasons.
First it is good for England and, second, because we all need a few fairy tales to spice up our enjoyment of the game.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to ESPNscrum.com