Tuesday 28 February 2017

Johnson turns to Flood

Mick Cleary

It was all going so well. England, rejuvenated on all manner of fronts; Wales, in contrast, heads dipping after losing two front-row forwards. Then came Thursday's non-contact session which proved to be anything but for Riki Flutey.

The Brive inside centre, essential to England's plans, took a knee to his thigh as he did a grappling exercise with a colleague and was yesterday ruled out of today's Six Nations opener with a dead leg.

Leicester's Toby Flood steps into the No 12 jersey, with Bath's Shontayne Hape, the uncapped former New Zealand rugby league international, moving up to the bench. On such margins do the odds tilt.

Flutey became increasingly influential during last season's Six Nations, his four tries putting him equal with Brian O'Driscoll as the tournament's leading try-scorer and enabling England to finish as runners-up.

New Zealand-born Flutey went on the Lions tour, but injured his knee and only featured in the third Test; he then missed the autumn internationals after undergoing a shoulder operation.

Abrasiveness

England duly spluttered. Flood is no mean operator himself, although his fine work for Leicester this season has been done at out-half. He lacks Flutey's edge, though, his abrasiveness in the tackle and perhaps even his settling effect on the man inside, Jonny Wilkinson.

Flutey's absence may alter perspectives on a day when Twickenham's centenary is celebrated. Some slack may be cut if England lack fluency, although there might still be dire consequence if they do not manage to kick-start their Six Nations campaign with a performance of bite, devil and direction.

England supporters still expect. The faithful have continued to flock to their vantage points in much the manner they have done this past hundred years, imbued with a sense of hope for the most part, cocksure expectation appearing only during the 1990s and pre-2003 World Cup-winning years.

And now? Part fingers crossed, part fingers-over-eyes. There have been some dreadfully lame England performances this past few years, offset by the unheralded rat-a-tat-tat volley of tries against a hapless France side 12 months ago.

England followers yearn for some sign of consistency, a sense of bounce and belief in the team's prospects. The coaches will patiently point out that England top-scored in last season's championship, with 16 tries.

It is a fair rejoinder. But how many supporters will skip along to Twickenham today with lightness in their soul and relish in their eyes? Very few.

This England generation has yet to earn the trust of the public, to convert the congregation from followers to believers.

There is little doubt that today's stage is a perfect setting for changing that. This way for the life-affirming dip into the waters. Confirmation awaits, if only Johnson's side can translate the energy that has been crackling around camp this week into a display of significance. It can happen, but so, too, can the opposite scenario. And that is why this fixture gets the juices flowing.

It has been a long time since a match on the opening day of a championship came laden with such ramifications. An England victory would send the side hurtling onwards through the tournament and towards the 2011 World Cup with enhanced credentials. Defeat would be so deflating, so ruinous.

The inquest into Johnson's credibility would open with renewed vigour.

So much for what is at stake. What, in truth, might happen?

England are certainly much better equipped than they were in the autumn to deal with whatever Wales throw at them. The loss of loose-head prop Gethin Jenkins and hooker Matthew Rees has diluted the Welsh challenge.

They might well have had an edge in the tight scrummage, with consequences elsewhere.

Scrum-half Gareth Cooper, stepping in for the injured Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel, would have had less pressure on him, leaving greater scope for Jamie Roberts, James Hook and Shane Williams to make merry.

Instead, the scrummaging contest looks even, as does the line-out.

The breakdown, as ever, will settle so much. It is time for Lewis Moody to lead the back-row charge.

If the blond mop of Moody shows ahead of the ginger crop of Wales' Martyn Williams, England will be in business.

Wales are grittier than they used to be and have lost only two championship matches in two years. The contest will be fiery and relentless, with England to sneak home. (Daily Telegraph, London)

England -- D Armitage; M Cueto, M Tait, T Flood, U Monye; J Wilkinson, D Care; T Payne, D Hartley, D Wilson; S Shaw, S Borthwick (capt); J Haskell, L Moody, N Easter. Replacements: S Thompson, D Cole, L Deacon, S Armitage, P Hodgson, S Hape, B Foden.

Wales -- L Byrne; T James, J Hook, J Roberts, S Williams; S Jones, G Cooper; P James, G Williams, A Jones; A-W Jones, L Charteris; A Powell, M Williams, R Jones (capt). Replacements: H Bennett, R Gill, B Davies, J Thomas, R Rees, A Bishop, L Halfpenny.

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