Whilst I’m cautious of underestimating the Scots this weekend, England’s fourth Six Nations game represents an opportunity for Martin Johnson to adjust his side in search of improvement.
It would of course be a disaster if it backfired and Scotland ended the Grand Slam dream, but they haven’t won at Twickenham since 1983, and they have already lost to France, Wales and Ireland during this campaign, so England start as strong favourites.
Time is running out before Johnno needs to pick his squad for the Rugby World Cup, so is this not an ideal opportunity to make the odd change?
The midfield represents England’s biggest problem, where Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall aren’t quick enough or skillful enough to threaten a defensive line, and they are limiting opportunities for Ben Foden and Chris Ashton to play a bigger part in the game.
If it were up to me, I would drop them both, and probably wouldn’t have started with them in the first place, but let’s try to keep this slightly realistic. Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt are knocking on the door, along with Brad Barritt, but I can’t see them being involved, whereas Matt Banahan seems to have done enough for Bath in the last few outings to warrant another chance in the midfield – but can he replace Hape at 12? You’d be left with Tindall and Banahan and without an inside centre. So would you drop Tindall?
That may depend on the back row selection, where captain Lewis Moody should be back in contention along with Tom Croft. Would Johnno learn anything new by reinstating two proven flankers to the side, or should he stick with Tom Wood? It might even be a chance to try moving James Haskell to Number 8 to give Nick Easter a rest, given that the backup 8s are slightly thin on the ground.
In the second row, Courtney Lawes should return ahead of Louis Deacon. We already know that he can do the job after his efforts in the autumn, but he’s short of game time and would benefit from more international exposure in what is left of the Six Nations.
I’d also reinstate Alex Corbisiero for the same reason, ahead of Andrew Sheridan at loosehead prop. Sheridan is feared by some front rows, whilst others have made him look pretty ordinary, so it seems sensible to continue the development of his potential replacement – and it doesn’t seem too much of a gamble.
And finally, I’d make a change at half-back. Danny Care and Jonny Wilkinson have both looked sharp when they’ve come on, and deserve a chance to run the game from the outset. However, I’d like to see Ben Youngs partnered with Wilkinson, on the basis that replacements have been made in pairs so far, but that might not always be possible in the case of injury, and with Toby Flood becoming so critical to England’s performance, he could well be targeted by the opposition and taken out of the game. Moreover, with Flood recovering from a knock, he would probably benefit from a rest ahead of the trip to Dublin, and starting with Wilko is hardly a risky option.
So with a hint of hope, and a slight touch of realism, here is my proposed England team to take on Scotland this weekend:
1. Alex Corbisiero
2. Dylan Hartley
3. Dan Cole
4. Courtney Lawes
5. Tom Palmer
6. Tom Wood
7. Lewis Moody
8. James Haskell
9. Ben Youngs
10. Jonny Wilkinson
11. Mark Cueto
12. Shontayne Hape
13. Matt Banahan
14. Chris Ashton
15. Ben Foden