Martin Johnson has some tough decisions to make

As Johnno gets ready to announce his first team as England Manager, we’ve put our heads together at The Rugby Blog to offer him a helping hand.

Martin Johnson

We do sympathise with the great man though – a spate of recent injuries has thrown up a few selection dilemmas, particularly in the backs where James Simpson-Daniel misses out yet again and Tom Varndell has also been replaced.

Andrew Sheridan and Matt Stevens were the first names on the team sheet, with Dylan Hartley coming in at hooker given Lee Mears’ injury problems (and assuming the Northampton man doesn’t get cited this week). Hartley seems to be the most promising hooker around, so let’s give him his chance to impress on the big stage.

The recently re-appointed captain, Steve Borthwick, is obviously a shoe-in, and we’d give Nick Kennedy the start over Tom Palmer primarily for his lineout prowess. This could be an area of weakness for England, and Johnno won’t like that.

The back row is probably the most exciting area for England, and these three could become a new dream unit at the back of the scrum. Tom Rees is in fine form despite playing for a struggling Wasps outfit, Tom Croft has electric pace and just edges out Jordan Crane, whilst James Haskell has proven his worth to any team with his size, strength and speed.

With the recent clampdown on defences slowing ball at the breakdown, this back row should be encouraged to play in the loose and we could finally see some England attacking play as a result. The seamless link between backs and forwards has been missing since the Hill, Back and Dallaglio days and a Croft, Rees, Haskell trio could be the answer.

Danny Care and Danny Cipriani come in at fly-half in the hope that they begin to forge a long-standing relationship. Toby Flood has put his name firmly in the frame at fly-half, but Cipriani is ‘the future’ even if he is still finding his feet since his injury (no pun intended).

Outside Cipriani is where the problems begin. Paul Sackey is a shoe-in, but England is seriously lacking another exciting prospect on the wing. Josh Lewsey doesn’t quite fit the bill, so we’d give Delon Armitage his first cap.

Dan Hipkiss and Riki Flutey could develop an exciting combination in midfield – both have very quick feet, and they can defend as well. Lewsey or Olly Barkley could be an option in the centre, as could Mathew Tait if he recovers from injury so there is certainly scope for discussion here. I haven’t seen too much of Hipkiss this season, but I’d like to see him given a chance.

Nick Abendanon has caught the eye at full-back with a number of commanding performances for Bath, and he has a penchant for running the ball back from at least a few of the long, in-field kicks we have been seeing in the Premiership. If nothing else, at least his unpredictability will cause the odd headache when the opposition consider England’s attacking threat.

The back line is certainly open for debate, but sadly the options don’t appear to be too extensive. Let me know what you think:

1 Sheridan

2 Hartley

3 Stevens

4 Borthwick

5 Kennedy

6 Croft

7 Rees

8 Haskell

9 Care

10 Cipriani

11 Armitage

12 Hipkiss

13 Flutey

14 Sackey

15 Abendanon

12 thoughts on “Martin Johnson has some tough decisions to make

  1. For me Shaw is the superior second row for Wasps. However, he is not my pick for England. I would like Kennedy in there. Wasps have had a poor start where as the Irish and Kennedy have been brilliant! I would like to see Tait at FB but he hasnt had a chance to impress playing for club, so Abendanon is the correct choice if we are picking on form.

  2. Interesting team, I’d do things a bit differently though: 1. Sheridan (is he winning the fitness race? Payne will probably end up starting the first game) 2. Mears (fitness permitting – I still think he’ll be 1st choice even with Hartley about) 3. Vickery (I think that Stevens is better off the bench that Vickery is and they’re the only tight heads in the squad) 4. Kennedy (lineout – no better time to throw him in than now) 5. Borthwick (boring choice of captain. I’d have picked Rees for the future) 6. Croft 7. Rees 8. Narraway (if fit, otherwise Crane. Haskell has been average so far this season).

    9. Ellis (Care as impact off the bench to bleed him into the international game) 10. Flood (being playing well at 10 and I’m not a Flood fan. Cipriani needs more time) 11. Armitage (they’ll probably pick Lewsey though) 12. Barkley 13. Hipkiss 14. Sackey 15. Abendanon

    On a separate note. Why bring Easter into the full England squad?! He hasn’t been a regular for Quins?! The young guns of Robshaw, Skinner and Guest are so much better than Easter – it’s not like he’s a seasoned/incredibly experienced international…?

  3. Flood is a tricky one, as he has been playing well. Cipriani is still not back to full fitness, but it’s the Pacific Islanders team first up so he has a chance to get back up to speed before taking on the big guns from the Southern Hemisphere.

    I’d pick him from the start since he’s more likely to win the game for England against New Zealand than Flood.

  4. I’d have to agree with DSP on the Haskell front, he really hasn’t played well so far this season. Where before, you could forgive his penalties at the breakdown because he’d be forcing 2/3 turnovers a game and making 50m breaks, now he just seems to run around with little purpose.
    I’ve got a feeling Tom Guest is made for the international stage and the sooner he’s involved the better.
    Whatever backline is picked will be inexperienced and need a leader. I haven’t seen a more commanding presence in recent years than Cipriani’s performance in last year’s six nations match (v Ireland). He seemed to rise to the occasion and was so assured, barking orders to the whole team, regardless of his lack of caps. So he’d start at 10 for me.

  5. Agree that Haskell hasn’t been at the top of his game, but he’s been playing behind a fairly ropey Wasps pack that has often been on the back foot.

    Do you not think that in the England setup, we’ll see a better performance from Haskell (talked about not long ago as a candidate for England Captain)? It’s a bit of a leap of faith, but I think his dip in form will be temporary.

  6. Agreed with the front 5 James – i think you have to start with Matt Stevens to get some momentum from the outset, encouraging offloads and continuity in attack. in the back row, Reece at 7 obviously, but I’d move Haskell to 6 (his better position in my opinion),put Croft on the bench as an impact player,then have either Crane or Narraway at 8.Easter’s still looking good, but has not had much match time recently.Narraway’s looking sharp but is probably too small to be an international 8. why not give Crane a chance then to show what he can do.
    Care has to be in at 9-he’s looking more and more assured at Quins whilst Ellis is off the pace.he also showed in NZ over the summer that he is ready to step up to the plate-he kept taking the fight to the AB’s right up to the last minute.Flood is as much an international 10 as Goode was-he’s competent at club level but doesn’t have what it takes to command and influence a game at international level, hence Cipriani must start.|Ambivalent to either Flood/Barkley at 12 and Flutey/Hipkiss at be honest,none of them is playing well so Johnno should go for the least bad option…so long as Noon is not involved!Sackey has to be in at 14.Tait at 11 would be a bold call,and although i prefer him at full-back he’s not ready at this stage of the season to cover that role.If not,Armitage should get the opportunity with Tait covering the back 3 positions and 13 from the bench.Abendanon is still not a solid full-back,but has been improving his defence and is undoubtedly the form 15 of the season,therefore must be included.

  7. Agree with most of your choices club last night was considering armitage at 13 tho-would love to see him get a run out and show what he can do, either at 13 or FB.

  8. Dan Carter moved to inside centre to accomodate stephen donald? surely when hAve the world’s best player you play him in hgis best position…

  9. Stradeymourner15 – Stephen Donald is playing at 10 because when Carter is sunning himself in Perpignan, he won’t be available for the ABs…and they can’t just play anyone there!

    As for the England conundrum…why is it that everytime England come round to play we start with a full squad and end up with ringers (Flutey), novices (Armitage) and has beens (Vickery)?!

    Bring back Duncan Bell!!

  10. Can anyone remember the last time England had it’s 100% fit, 100% competitive, first choice (i.e. without any drop-outs and subsequent late call-ups) 1st XV playing?

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