Johnson has choice words for critics as England boss rallies round Wilkinson
MARTIN JOHNSON prefers by far the collective to the individual. It was, therefore, a painful experience to find himself discussing not one but two out-halves after announcing yesterday an unchanged starting XV to face Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday.
He was happy enough to confirm Jonny Wilkinson's place in the overall scheme of things; happy, too, that his most experienced player had run off muscular tightness and had trained on Monday and yesterday.
"I don't need to sit here and defend Jonny Wilkinson's record in world rugby," the England team manager said in the build-up to the third round of the Six Nations Championship. "He's been around a long time but not with the people he's playing with now."
Then there is Danny Cipriani, soon to be a Melbourne Rebel with a different cause. England's management have been accused of spurning the London Wasps 22-year-old, who has spoken of a feeling of negativity. "I would like to have been treated with a little more sympathy by people in the game," Cipriani said. "I would like to have spoken to Martin a lot more."
To which Johnson acknowledged the potential of Cipriani but then said, in measured tones: "I spent more time talking to Danny than any other player in the squad. You can only be honest with him and we have done that all the way through. He's made his (career) decision, we wish him well.
"He's a young guy with bags of potential but we have lots of these players. You want them all to come through and be the best they can be."
Johnson, evidently, was thinking of Dan Cole, who this weekend will start his second England game at the age of 22; of Matt Mullan, Cole's fellow prop, who was capped for the first time 10 days ago against Italy but is not required against Ireland; of Danny Care, who is taking on an increasingly influential role at scrum-half.
Wilkinson, who will win his 76th cap, needs no defence. "I'm a harsher critic than any of you guys," he told the media. "I'm dealing with what I'm facing in my own head. I know there's a reason for what I do on the field."
The team management believe that some former internationals may have an agenda where Wilkinson is concerned. "I didn't make any decisions, either, it was all Matt Dawson," Johnson said of the former scrum-half who played alongside him and Wilkinson in the 2003 World Cup final and has claimed that Wilkinson is not a good decision-maker.
Brian Smith, the attack coach, described much of the criticism as "bandwagon stuff". "Jonny knows he has 100pc trust from the players and he enjoys our trust," Smith said. "Look at the line breaks we made against Italy, he was a massive part of the (Mathew Tait) try and when Mark Cueto broke, Jonny had put a 17- to 20-metre pass between two other players. I'm not sure people analyse him properly. If he were not in the side, people would be saying, 'Bring back Wilko'."
Smith has a view on Cipriani, too. "I'm not sorry to see Danny going (to Australia)," he said. "I think he can grow from the experience, the Super 15 will suit him down to the ground. But he has almost taken himself out of the running."
It was all a long way from Saturday's game and although Johnson has opted for the same XV that started the 17-12 win over Italy -- which left England and France as the only unbeaten sides in the championship -- he has amended his bench. Joe Worsley returns thanks to his experience in the back row being far greater than that of Steffon Armitage; Ben Foden, the Saints full-back, is also included after being omitted against Italy because of England's preference for a five-two forwards-backs split on the bench.
Johnson admitted that, had Foden been included in Rome, he would probably have been given a late outing. Mullan gives way, as does Steve Thompson, whose place as replacement hooker goes to Lee Mears. The Bath man has overcome ligament damage to his left knee sustained last October and his form has risen along with that of his club.
Worcester Warriors have confirmed that Andy Goode, the England out-half, will join them next season after his loan move from Brive to the Sharks. The former Leicester player could make his debut for the South African side on Friday after being named on the bench for the Super 14 game in Christchurch against the Crusaders. (© The Times, London)