There will be some nervous individuals around the rugby clubs of England this morning. They will be hanging on tenterhooks waiting to see if Martin Johnson is going to stick with his original hand or twist, and if it’s the latter whether they are one of the cards to be traded in.
There have already been a considerable number of forced changes to the squad to the extent that it is unclear quite how many changes he can actually make and who is currently in the elite squad. For example, Danny Cipriani was not in the original squad but came in when Jonny Wilkinson was injured. Does that make him part of the squad and will Johnson have to drop someone else if he wants to accommodate both of them? Ugo Monye, Nick Easter and Delon Armitage also came in to replace injured players. The replacement of the retired Josh Lewsey will not count as a change. Tom Varndell has already been dropped.
There is also no shortage of injury problems. Simpson-Daniel, Tait and Wilkinson have all had long-term injuries; Hipkiss, Rees and Palmer have just crocked themselves, the latter two for the long-term. Added to that, Harry Ellis suffered yet another attack of little man syndrome and got himself suspended for spear-tackling Dan Carter off the ball. Johnson has decision to make regarding these players.
So amid all this chaos and injuries aside, it is probably more informative to have a look at who will be pacing up and down nervously and who will be offering up prayers that they may join the elite.
Nick Abendanon – probably would have started in the Autumn were it not for injury and had to watch Delon Armitage lay down a marker. Impressive going forward, his frailties in defence have again been exposed recently and with others in form he could struggle.
Matthew Tait – for many of us it seems we have been waiting an age for him to be given a long-term chance, especially after his performance in the world Cup final. But has suffered an injury-blighted season in which he has struggled for form and rivals are playing well.
Toby Flood – the incumbent fly-half has been playing poorly for Leicester and doubts remain about whether he can cut it at the top. If Johnson picks on form then the 10 shirt should really go to Shane Geraghty and with Cipriani unlikely to be dropped and Wilkinson back fairly soon, Flood could be looking over his shoulder.
Dan Hipkiss – got injured at the weekend although should be fit soon. Appears to be behind Jamie Noon in the pecking order and if Johnson decides he wants to accommodate the form men in Mike Tindall, Ben Foden and Olly Morgan, and retain Tait, then Hipkiss could be the unlucky one.
Jamie Noon – the perennial safe pair of hands but do England need more than that at 13. Has won plenty of caps, most of them due to a dearth of other options. There are other options now and they offer more than Noon.
Matt Stevens – after a poor showing in the autumn he has been upstaged by his less illustrious teammates in the Bath front row. Continues to frustrate but formidable when on form.
Tom Croft/Jordan Crane – the former has been playing well for Leicester but did not impress in the Autumn. Lacks physicality and England don’t play a game which lends itself to his pace out wide. Crane is very similar to Easter and Narraway is back in the picture. Someone has to make way for the returning Lewis Moody.
Olly Morgan – has been in fantastic form for Gloucester but has continued his trend of getting injured at the wrong time, including in the autumn which gave Delon Armitage his chance. Seen by many as the long-term answer at full back.
Ben Foden – has been tearing it up for the Saints but do a handful of performances make a test player? Versatile which can be a double-edged sword – do we have another Austin Healey on our hands? But scintillating talent with confidence to burn and Peter Richards is injured creating an opportunity at 9.
Mark Cueto – test career looked over but has been in great form playing full back or wing. Scoring and creating crucial tries, he is playing with the confidence of old. England suddenly have plenty of options at 15.
Mike Tindall – Gloucester’s talisman, they are a different team when he is on form giving them shape. Barnstorming when playing well although his skills get exposed when he is not. Dead leg aside, he has been playing well and certainly offers more than Noon as a target man at 13.
Steffon Armitage – at the front of London Irish’s recent surge, possesses power and aggression. Not a classic openside like Rees or Lipman but the former’s injury could open a door.
Alex Brown – outsider but Tom Palmer is out of the tournament and Brown has been playing out of his skin for Gloucester. Excellent lineout operator and good around the park.
So who would you like to see brought in and who do you think should be excommunicated without further hesitation?