Oval Talk

England’s XV?

Oval Talk

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With the England squad having departed for a week-long training camp in Portugal, Oval Talk thinks it's time to start discussing the make-up of Martin Johnson's team for the Six Nations.

At this stage, the omens do not look at all good for England. Johnson's side had a disastrous autumn campaign, action in the Premiership has been mostly ponderous this season, and - perhaps most worrying of all - just one English club, Northampton, qualified for the last eight of the Heineken Cup.

It is the worst return by Premiership teams in the 12 seasons they have competed for the Heineken Cup, and while we all appreciate the fine margins between success and failure, it also reflects the difference between the current talent pools in England and those in Ireland and France.

English clubs have fallen behind the Irish provinces and Top 14 sides for a variety of reasons, and it is not unreasonable to expect this disparity to show up at international level as well.

Wales have lost their way in the past 18 months and the same could be argued about their clubs, while it will be interesting to see whether Glasgow and Edinburgh's improved competitiveness in Europe and the Celtic League will be mirrored by their national team in the Six Nations.

All of which makes Johnson's selection for England's Six Nations opener with Wales on February 7 more important than ever, certainly with regard to his future as well as their chances at the 2011 World Cup.

His team need to learn how to play with freedom over the next two months and rid themselves of the over-prescriptive approach that afflicted performances in November.

For OT, this starts with the captain. Johnson has to bite the bullet once and for all and admit that Steve Borthwick is not the man to turn around England's fortunes, despite the now tedious references from all and sundry as to the lock's professionalism.

It makes no difference how 'professional' Borthwick is if he does not have the talent to survive at the top table of international rugby.

A second row partnership of Simon Shaw and either Courtney Lawes or Lewis Deacon - one of Leicester's better performers in their defeat to the Ospreys at the weekend - will serve England better in the Six Nations and through to 2011.

Which leaves Johnson needing a new captain, and OT would opt for either Harlequins number eight Nick Easter (pictured) or Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley. Both should be first-choice in their positions; Easter is one of the more astute members of Johnson's squad, and Hartley is doing a fine job of the captaincy at Northampton.

Jonny Wilkinson and Lewis Moody have also been mentioned as possible captains, but OT senses that England would be better served allowing them to concentrate fully on their whole-hearted approach to the cause.

Another problem position is at outside centre, and who will partner the now-fit and crucial Riki Flutey.

According to most media reports, Mathew Tait is set to be given a decent run at 13 after a stop-start international career, and the Sale Shark did well to score with his one decent opportunity against Toulouse at the weekend.

OT is not convinced. It may be an over-used criticism of the 23-year-old, but Tait's size leaves him vulnerable in defence, and while there is no doubt he has the pace, he is not an especially good footballer.

Delon Armitage, on the other hand, is, and although OT will no doubt get slaughtered for saying so, Johnson should move the London Irish player from full-back to outside centre.

Armitage is fast, physical in the tackle, can kick and pass, and has that X factor to open up defences, just like Northampton's in-form Ben Foden, who OT would bring in at full-back.

Some might see it as trying to shoe-horn England's two most exciting players into the same XV, but so what? It's not as if Armitage has never played centre before, or Johnson would be splitting up any winning combinations.

Nor can Johnson afford to ignore the try-scoring talents of Foden's Northampton team-mate Chris Ashton. The former rugby league wing has been in cracking form for the Saints this season, and has not been found wanting in the Heineken Cup, so OT would select him with Ugo Monye on the other flank.

At scrum-half, Danny Care deserves a chance to show what he can do in a team given more license to attack, at least until the likes of Ben Youngs and Joe Simpson have been fully incorporated into the England set-up.

Injuries will play a large part in who forms the England front-row, but Bath's David Wilson did enough at tight-head during the November internationals, and until we know who is fit and who is not, OT is going to go for Worcester's Matt Mullan at loose-head.

Mullen may only be keeping the jersey warm until Andrew Sheridan is fit again, but the young Warrior is a fine prospect and there is no point in persisting with Tim Payne.

In light of the injury to Tom Croft, the back-row pretty much picks itself, with Easter at number eight, Moody on the openside and James Haskell at six, though there is an injury doubt over the Stade Francais player following the weekend loss in Edinburgh.

If Haskell fails to recover, then Lawes can move to blind-side, with Deacon packing down with Shaw in the second row.

OT's England XV v Wales at Twickenham on February 6.

15-Ben Foden (Northampton)
14-Chris Ashton (Northampton)
13-Delon Armitage (London Irish)
12-Riki Flutey (Brive)
11-Ugo Monye (Harlequins)
10-Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon)
9-Danny Care (Harlequins)
1-Matt Mullan (Worcester)
2-Dylan Hartley (Northampton)
3-David Wilson (Bath)
4-Simon Shaw (Wasps)
5-Courtney Lawes (Northampton)
6-James Haskell (Stade Francais)
7-Lewis Moody (Leicester)
8-Nick Easter (Harlequins)

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