Johnson ready to make final cut
The first cut has been made. The last cut will be the deepest.
Three weeks from now, England manager Martin Johnson - along with all the other national coaches - will have to decide on his final squad of 30 for the Rugby World Cup.
So the 40 who reassembled on Monday at England’s Pennyhill Park base in Surrey know that now is not the time to be slacking off.
A painful phone call or one-to-one with Johnson still awaits 10 of them, with James Simpson-Daniel, David Strettle, George Chuter, Thomas Waldrom and Joe Worsley having already packed their bags.
With only room for 30 players, you’d think picking a World Cup squad would be relatively straightforward. Just pick the two best players in each position, right?
But most countries deem three hookers and three scrum-halves to be essential, such is the specialist nature of those roles. So the rest of the party inevitably involves compromise.
For the last two World Cups, England have opted for a 16-14 split between forwards and backs. Up front, that has resulted in four props, three hookers, three locks and six back-row players.
Paul Doran-Jones, Lee Mears and Andrew Sheridan in action during an England training session at Pennyhill Park PHOTO: GETTY
The ability of Martin Corry, primarily a flanker or number eight, to do a shift in the second row if called upon allowed both Sir Clive Woodward, and then Brian Ashton, to take only three specialist locks.
Johnson might view flanker Tom Croft in the same mould as Corry, in which case one of Simon Shaw, Louis Deacon, Courtney Lawes or Tom Palmer will be an unfortunate casualty.
The South African-born Mouritz Botha also remains in the mix, but must be favoured to be one of those left behind, unless he leapfrogs Deacon or Shaw and Johnson takes four specialists.
Shaw experienced the pain of rejection in 2003, as did England’s current scrummaging coach Graham Rowntree.
The ability to prop on either side of the scrum is understandably valued, so the likes of Matt Stevens and Paul Doran-Jones are in a strong position to join Andrew Sheridan and Dan Cole, though Alex Corbisiero is also a good bet if they opt for a second specialist at loose-head.
Tim Payne and David Wilson look likely casualties.
Probably six of the remaining 22 forwards will get the chop – most likely three props, two locks and one back-rower. Among the latter, Hendre Fourie and Chris Robshaw appear most vulnerable.
The backs are a more fluid affair, with versatility again a prized asset. Delon Armitage - who can do a turn at outside centre and wing as well as full-back, Matt Banahan - an out-sized wing or centre, and Riki Flutey, who has played Test rugby at inside and outside centre and some club outings at 10 or 15, have their attractions for selectors.
With 18 backs left, four more are likely to be culled. One back-three player (probably a wing), at least one centre, possibly two if Johnson deems three specialist fly-halves essential, and a scrum-half. Richard Wigglesworth and Joe Simpson are contesting the final number nine spot.
All of which means selection for the forthcoming home and away Tests against Wales will be instructive, especially for this Saturday’s date at Twickenham.
If there is going to a World Cup ´bolter’ - the uncapped Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi, Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples, or Saracens lock Botha for example - then now is the time to throw them in.
If none of them are on the team-sheet for England’s only home warm-up when Johnson unveils it on Thursday, the chances are they won’t be going to New Zealand. Not many players make their Test debuts at a World Cup.
By the time England play their final warm-up match in Dublin on 27 August, the final 30 will have been chosen.
Whoever makes the final cut, one player who should be in it, injury permitting, is confident England will do themselves proud when they do get to the land of the long white cloud.
Asked by BBC Sport last week if the squad believe they are capable of winning the World Cup, full-back Ben Foden responded: “Yes, definitely. I don’t think you should be here if you don’t believe we can go there and compete.
“If we do the hard work here and get the right blend, we are going to New Zealand with a realistic chance. I think the players and squad we have is second to none.”
England supporters will be looking for a few signs over the coming weeks that such confidence is not misplaced.