With Billy Vunipola out injured and no extra specialist no.8 called up to the squad as cover, Johnson could not have timed it better to put in one of the performances of the season so far against London Irish at the weekend.
He made 80 metres, including a couple of scintillating clean breaks, and generally looked dangerous with ball in hand. He will fight it out for the England bench spot with Matt Kvesic, but this performance, allied with his ability to play across the back row, has probably edged him in front of the Gloucester man.
Much has been made of Tuilagi being brought back into the England squad this week, but all the noises from Lancaster and co. indicate that it will just be a case of reintegrating him back into the environment, rather than actually considering him for selection. In his first appearance for five months, Tuilagi did not look off the pace, but there were definitely signs of rustiness as he shot out of defence a couple of times in the first half, and was guilty of running too laterally with ball in hand.
There were some good signs, too, with some aggressive physicality in the tackle area standing out, as well as one or two good carries, but having not been with the England squad since the Wales game last year, the game against the same opponents this weekend is surely much, much too soon for him.
This will not necessarily be a popular opinion, but Alex Goode was sublime for Saracens against Bath on Friday night. Told he was playing fly-half instead of fullback just 30 seconds before the game, he stepped into the breach without batting an eyelid and controlled the game brilliantly. In the process, it must be said, he outplayed opposite man and fellow England substitute George Ford.
Goode’s best position has long been mooted, but this was a big nudge to both the Saracens and England coaching staffs that it is fly-half. He played all his age grade rugby there, and was only moved to 15 on arriving at Saracens, but with the years catching up to Charlie Hodgson, he should be given more game time there next season. He has the vision, time on the ball and ability to excel there, while that half a yard of pace that he lacks matters less than when he plays full back.
One of the stars of the Lions tour in the summer, Davies has been sidelined with a pectoral injury since November. Like Tuilagi, his performance for his club at the weekend, when he played 65 minutes, was a mixed bag. He broke the line with his first touch of the game, showing that he hadn’t lost any of the physicality of old, but there were three missed tackles in defence and his influence over the rest of the game was reduced.
The Scarlets coaching staff believe he is ready, and it may well be too tempting for Gatland to bring him back in so he can shift George North back out to his favoured position on the wing.
Peter O’Mahony is an injury doubt for the weekend and with the visit of Italy to Dublin providing (on paper, at least) far less of a challenge than the trip to Paris the week after, Joe Schmidt may well decide to rest the Munsterman. After his performance for Leinster at the weekend, Rhys Ruddock looks the favourite to take over. He showed good opportunism, not to mention strength, to barge and bundle his way over the tryline from short range against Glasgow at the weekend, whilst he also got through plenty of work, carrying 14 times and making nine tackles.
Cut from the same cloth as O’Mahony – he is the same height (6’3″) and weighs seven pounds more (17st 7lbs) – he seems like the obvious man to deputise.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images