Due to England’s current injury crisis there were few surprises when Martin Johnson announced his 32-man squad for the forthcoming autumn series on Monday.
Apart from the uncapped trio of Richard Blaze, Courtney Lawes and veteran David Barnes it is clear Johnson opted for form and experience ahead of any potential left-field picks.
And with England robbed of seven probable starters to face Australia on November 7 it would be easy to overlook arguably the most important selection of all – the captain.
Saracen’s Steve Borthwick has again been given the reins and putting wholesale changes to the squad aside, I can’t help but think Johnson has bottled it and gone for the safe option with his leader.
A captain should be the first name written on the team sheet in a bold, permanent marker. Although Borthwick’s effort is never in doubt, his performances are and regularly so. In the lineout, although not dominant, he is efficient but his work in the loose is questionable and you rarely see him steamrolling into defences as his manager once so often did.
For my money he does not warrant an automatic place in the starting XV let alone be handed the captaincy. If Nick Kennedy continues his all-round development at London Irish and newcomer Lawes impresses, Johnson will have no choice but to drop Borthwick.
The 30-year-old former Bath second row is of the Martin Corry mould – all spark no fire. Perhaps a little harsh but in order to take England forward, Johnson must take a risk and replace the pencil with the ball point to ink in a long-term man at the helm. The captaincy issue arises at the start of every tournament and to date the former Welford Road legend has publicly stood by the man from Carlisle, but surely not for long.
There is however hardly a queue of worthy alternatives and it could be argued that Johnson is making the best of what he has. His decision was probably made for him with the casualty list as long as it was but this should only postpone the inevitable.
Jonny Wilkinson is back but is unlikely to be shortlisted because of his fragile body. Phil Vickery is winding down his career and Tom Rees, although young and able, is not a certainty for the number seven shirt.
A Tiger by the name of Tom Croft ticks the boxes. The 6ft 5in blindside flanker made waves on the Lions tour to South Africa despite being overlooked for the initial squad and has the modern attributes to become world-class. He has been tipped to become the future of English rugby – a future that could very soon become the present.
It remains to be seen how England fare this November. Australia, followed by Argentina and New Zealand is a tough ask for any side never mind one that is severely depleted.
The honeymoon is well and truly over for Johnson, it is time to deliver. These are the moments he would relish as a player and as a leader. Borthwick will feel the same, but it may already be too late.
By Tom Walker