ALL things being equal, the England side for this weekend’s important World Cup warm-up match in Dublin would have stayed together for the opening pool game with Argentina in Dunedin in 16 days’ time. Unfortunately for Martin Johnson, the red-rose manager, things have been growing progressively unequal throughout the summer, to the extent that the gap between the long-term plan and the current reality is now a chasm. The captain is injured, the tight-forward selection is up in the air, the half-back positions are causing migraines among the coaching staff and there is something depressingly Old Mother Hubbardish about the midfield. Apart from that, everything is hunky dory.
There was some good news for England yesterday, in the shape of a positive medical bulletin regarding James Haskell. The flanker needed a scan on a foot problem suffered in training early this week, the results of which showed nothing more than mild inflammation. As a consequence, he is available for proceedings at Lansdowne Road and seems certain to be involved - unlike Lewis Moody, his fellow back-rower and World Cup skipper, who is struggling to make the date with the South Americans.
Richard Wigglesworth will also be asked to mix it with the Irish on Saturday, for the very good reason that he is the senior of the two scrum-halves currently in one piece. This time last year, there was no obvious prospect of him adding to his small handful of England caps and, if truth be told, he was not given much of a chance of making the 30-man cut as recently as three months ago. But his late-season form for title-winning Saracens set Johnson and his coaching staff thinking, and when the first preparatory game with Wales came round at the beginning of the month, he had overtaken Joe Simpson of Wasps as the number three No 9.
He is now the number two No 9, thanks to Danny Care’s enforced withdrawal through injury, and if Ben Youngs of Leicester is still struggling for fitness come Puma night, he can expect to start England’s most important game since the World Cup final in Paris almost four years ago. Quite a turnaround in fortunes given Johnson’s initial estimation of his value.
“I toured New Zealand in 2008 - a trip that didn’t go terribly well for a lot of us - and wasn’t picked for the next squad,” said the 28-year-old from Blackpool, who had won his initial caps under Brian Ashton. “It took me six months to get over the disappointment and it’s been a long process working my way back to where I am now. The move from Sale to Saracens played a part in that, definitely. I love Sale to bits and really enjoyed my time there, but I felt I needed a move and Saracens always looked to me like a great fit. I’m a big one for honesty, and right from the first meeting they were straight with me.”
Before the Premiership final against Leicester last May, the Saracens coaches famously refused to choose between Wigglesworth and the long-serving South African half-back Neil de Kock for the starting position. The two contenders tossed a coin, and Wigglesworth lost. “I think the system with England at a World Cup might be a little bit different,” he said. “Mind you, I’ve had better luck recently: I applied for two tickets to the Olympic 100 metres final and got them! A few of the blokes have already offered to buy them off me at face value. I don’t think that’s going to happen, somehow.”
Wigglesworth is not a running scrum-half of the Youngs-Simpson variety. Rather, he is in the French tradition: a game management specialist who can kick goals if called upon and do a turn at outside-half if the situation demands. This versatility partly explains Johnson’s decision not to take a third specialist No 10 - Wigglesworth’s old Sale clubmate Charlie Hodgson - to the forthcoming tournament, even though the manager may well find himself playing Jonny Wilkinson or Toby Flood at No 12.
Johnson must certainly be tempted to give the exciting young midfield newcomer Manu Tuilagi a run this weekend, possibly at inside centre rather than in his more familiar outside role. England are pinning a lot of faith on their naturalised Samoan, but as he has played only 80 minutes of Test rugby, a second shot at the big time ahead of next week’s flight to Auckland would do him no harm at all.
“We’ve known for a while that in physical terms, Manu has what it takes,” said Richard Cockerill, who coaches the 20-year-old human bowling ball at Leicester. “By the time he was 17, we couldn’t allow him to play academy rugby because he was just hurting people. It wasn’t fair. Even in our training now, we have to stop him doing certain things for fear that the damage will be too great. But he’s very inexperienced. How many games has he played? Nineteen or 20? If he comes rushing out of the line and the opposition pick him off to score the try that wins the game, he’ll get the blame. So England need to get him on the field - and yes, I think he could be a star for them in either centre position.”
Assuming Chris Ashton is fit - the free-scoring Northampton wing turned an ankle before the game in Wales in Cardiff 12 days ago - England are likely to name him alongside Ben Foden and Mark Cueto, thereby reuniting the back three that performed well enough during the Six Nations campaign. Both Wilkinson and Flood will be involved at some point in Dublin, while the uncapped Simpson is certain to be given a first taste of life in the international fast lane.
Wales have agreed to play Australia at the Millennium Stadium on 3 December - a fixture that lays outside the agreed Test window and will inevitably place England-based personnel such as Andrew Powell, the Sale No 8, and Craig Mitchell, the Exeter prop, at the centre of a club-versus-country argument.
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