Saturday 18 January 2020

Mathew Tait to return as England go on attack against Wales

Mick Cleary

England will name their strongest attacking back line since Martin Johnson took over 18 months ago as they attempt to deliver a no-holds-barred display against Wales at Twickenham.

England have been stung by criticism that their play has been stilted, one-dimensional and overly-prescriptive, so they will unleash scrum-half Danny Care, outside centre Mathew Tait and full-back Delon Armitage against the Welsh.

For the first time in his tenure Johnson can select from choice, the only absentee being centre Mike Tindall. Jonny Wilkinson gets the nod ahead of Leicester's Toby Flood, while the return of Riki Flutey at inside centre after he missed the November Tests with a shoulder injury will ensure that England have the necessary shrewdness to draw the best from those around him.

Armitage, another of those missing before Christmas, is at full-back, fighting off the burgeoning claims of Northampton's Ben Foden. The wings will be the established pairing of Ugo Monye and Mark Cueto, both of whom had to step across in November to fill the full-back role.

Johnson has opted for pace in an effort to beat Wales in a championship match for the first time in four years, England's worst run against their neighbours since the late Eighties. The greater speed and attacking potential of Care and Tait has helped see off rivals Paul Hodgson, the London Irish scrum-half, and Leicester's Dan Hipkiss, who filled the No 13 shirt throughout the autumn series. Hipkiss is the sturdier option, but although blessed with good footwork, cannot match Tait's arcing speed in the outside channel. It is a significant shift in emphasis for England.

Tait was in danger of becoming the lost soul of English rugby, shunted around the back line, stepping in at wing and full-back, when all his natural instincts are best served at outside centre. Tait has not started in that position for England since the 2007 Rugby World Cup final against South Africa in Paris, a game in which he made one of England's few decisive thrusts upfield, his quick-footed break producing the try-that-wasn't for Cueto, the wing denied by the video referee on the narrowest of margins.

Care, meanwhile, stalled through the autumn, allowing Hodgson to nip ahead of him for the starting berth against Argentina and New Zealand. Hodgson is a smart operator, a supreme organiser and goader, keeping forwards on the move and bringing tempo to the game. Care, though, has that extra lick of pace, the ability to pose a threat around the fringes. There was a sense that he felt shackled by England's dogmatic approach, afraid to do what he does so well for his club and just go hell-for-leather if he sees a gap.

Given that scrum-half is an area in which Wales are struggling, after injuries to Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel, England believe that Care's presence will enable them to exploit any openings.

Armitage's return was not quite a formality, even though he was England's outstanding player last season. Foden has made a strong case for inclusion after several eye-catching performances for Northampton on their journey into the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.

Armitage has had to prove that he has recovered form and fitness after missing three months with a dislocated shoulder. His greater reliability under the high ball and a more substantial kicking game have enabled him to assume the position he occupied during all 11 of England's Test matches last season. Armitage has scored five tries in his past six games for England and will look to counter-attack if the opportunity presents itself.

And Wilkinson? As Johnson said last week, he still considers his former World Cup-winning team-mate to be "an exceptional player". He will be encouraged to play flatter, an imperative if England are to profit from Tait's inclusion.

In the pack, injury has deprived Johnson of first-choice props Julian White and Andrew Sheridan. Replacements Dan Cole and Matt Mullan are too raw, so England are set to go with Tim Payne on the loosehead and Bath's David Wilson on the tight. James Haskell faces a fitness race to recover from a knee injury and claim the blindside berth in the back row alongside Nick Easter and Lewis Moody. Northampton youngster Courtney Lawes, who could also play at No 6, is struggling with a groin problem.

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