Johnson must be brave with selection
January 14, 2009
Can Johnson rally his players ahead of this year's Six Nations Championship? © Getty Images
Delon Armitage Tom Croft Mark Cueto Shane Geraghty Martin Johnson Stirling Mortlock Brian O'Driscoll Mike Tindall
Forget all this nonsense about 'Senior Elite Player' - the process might have been unnecessarily convoluted and subject to ridiculous covenants but we now know the England squad for the Six Nations and their back-ups in the Saxons squad.
To conform to the rules and make sure injured players are available later there are a couple of walking wounded but, basically, everyone you would want to see in the 64 is there. The big question now is what does Martin Johnson do to transform a talented group of players into a winning team?
There are a couple of big Heineken weekends before the off where players can make or break their case for selection but Johnson and his inner sanctum must, surely, have pencilled in their starting XV for the opening match against Italy on February 7. I just hope they are prepared to be brave and learn the right lessons from the autumn internationals. Some have advocated throwing everybody under 25 out with the bath water - what nonsense.
England desperately need success but they need to find the new stars that are going to take them out of this recession. My first selection (from the squad announced) would be Armitage, Cueto, Geraghty, Tindall, Flood, Care, Sheridan, Hartley, Stevens, Shaw, Kennedy, Haskell, Croft and Narraway.
That seems to me to have the right balance of youth and experience whilst addressing England's obvious shortcomings and making a declaration of intent.
Delon Armitage was unquestionably the find of the autumn international season. I thought he might be suspect under the high ball but he was the opposite, using his height and athleticism to advantage (a la Lee Byrne) to make it one of his strengths. However, he still lacks experience which is why I would go for Mark Cueto and Paul Sackey on the wings. Cueto seems to have shaken off a long term fitness problem and is still only 29, Sackey was dreadful in November but has shown enough for me to give him one more chance.
I think the centre combination could be really exciting. Geraghty made a sensational international debut but injury interrupted his progress. Now he has recovered his sharpness and I believe he could be another Brian O'Driscoll - he's got searing pace and gives a side the sort of cutting edge it needs at this level. Mike Tindall has been a revelation this season. We have always known about his power and defensive capabilities but now he is running great lines and, with all that experience, could be England's Stirling Mortlock.
These two certainly offer much more than Rick Flutey and Jamie Noon who will never ever be more than willing workhorses. It is too much of a gamble at the moment to play Danny Cipriani and Toby Flood played with authority and confidence when he replaced him so he gets my nod at 10 alongside Danny Care.
The scrum-half has done all that has been asked of him and would be my starter even if Harry Ellis had not sidelined himself with a 6 week suspension.
The front row is a real problem. Andrew Sheridan is in the last chance saloon for me and Phil Vickery has already left. The word from Sale is that Sheridan spends far too much time pushing massive weights and not enough running around the rugby field - surely somebody can put him back on track because I believe he could still be the best in the world.
It is time, too, that Matt Stevens graduated to the top flight. This is his big chance and he needs to prove quickly he is the real deal and not just a useful understudy.
If those two play to their potential it is the perfect time to introduce Dylan Hartley. My old Lions colleague, Bob Taylor (Northampton to the core), reckons he is a better prospect than Steve Thompson was at the same age and how England need another Thompson.
My views on Steve Borthwick are well known - nice man, too nice - and you cannot have a captain who would not otherwise be in the team so it's back to 'old faithful' Simon Shaw for the moment alongside Nick Kennedy, the other qualified success from the Autumn internationals.
Had Tom Rees been fit I would have included him at 7 with James Haskell at 8 and Tom Croft at 6 but I am not unhappy to have Haskell and Croft on the flanks. Croft is certainly quick enough to play open-side and with a little more commitment might even outstrip Rees in the long term - he has all the assets to become another Richie McCaw. Haskell just needs a touch more discipline to go with his self-belief.
Luke Narraway is something of a gamble but he has been very impressive in recent games and, for me, his extra pace gives him the edge over the solid but predictable, Nick Easter.
The key is potential and the youth and energy that Croft, Haskell, Rees and Narraway bring to the squad is absolutely vital in England's regeneration. Add in the excitement and adventure of Cipriani, Ben Foden and Matthew Tait from the bench and England fans have plenty to look forward to.
Do I expect my XV to resemble the England which faces Italy? Of course not - but I reckon they might come round to my way of thinking by the end of the season.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com