Ashton in line for England as Johnson aims to discover mean streak
The England management team will be in London tonight for the Rugby Writers' Annual Dinner, an occasion to break bread with, rather than the bones of, those who took them to task only two months ago for the national team's unconvincing display.
Martin Johnson and his coaching buddies recognise that times of reckoning are at hand whenever England take the field. They realise that instant accountability goes with the terrain. Humble pie will not feature on anyone's menu.
The hallmarks of Johnson's tenure will still be evident when he announces his 32-man Six Nations elite playing squad this morning: stability, continuity and loyalty count for much. However, there is a sense that England have to be bolder and less intent on survival or damage limitation.
There was a feeling in the autumn that England were playing without true conviction. If nothing else this Six Nations, they have to play without fear.
In part, this approach can be reflected in personnel. Yet there will not be many radical departures from the script when the squads are unveiled (a 32-man Saxons squad will also be named), with the likely promotion of Chris Ashton, Northampton's high-scoring wing, the stand-out change. Saracens flanker Andy Saull is also in the mix.
Three of the autumn series absentees -- centre Riki Flutey, full-back Delon Armitage and No 8 Nick Easter -- should go straight into the starting line-up.
The enforced strategy of going for two playmakers, Jonny Wilkinson splitting the role with Shane Geraghty, will be revised now that Flutey is back. He offers more bump when taking up the ball; more precision too.
England's big problem is at outside centre. Mike Tindall has not shaken off a hamstring problem that has plagued him all season. He is a pivotal figure for the England back line.
Leicester's Danny Hipkiss, who started at No 13 in all three November Tests, is a fine player but has yet to bring the same presence to the role. Toby Flood could slot in at 12, shifting Flutey to outside centre, but that risks undermining the very qualities he brings at inside centre.
Bath's Shontayne Hape is also in the reckoning, though his kicking game still requires work, while Danny Care is shaping up for a starting role at scrum-half.
The time has come for them also to consider substituting captain Steve Borthwick if they want to try Northampton lock Courtney Lawes alongside Simon Shaw.
It is time for Johnson's England to be more cut-throat, more audacious. Now, pass the salt. (© Daily Telegraph, London)