World Cup heartbreak beckons as Johnson ponders final cut
At some point this week, England's players will be taking a call they don't really want to answer.
The name on the screen will be 'Johnno', or however they refer to manager Martin Johnson in the privacy of their own phones.
For 10 of the 40 players technically still under consideration for the 30 available places in the squad, World Cup heartbreak beckons.
Johnson was not impressed by his side's defeat in Cardiff but will ring every player this week to inform them if they have made the World Cup cut. Picture: Getty
Having trained like beasts for six weeks, and tasted action in some cases in the first two warm-up Tests, being told they are missing out on a potential career highlight will take some swallowing.
"I have tasted it and I don't want to taste it again," says flanker James Haskell, who experienced the final cut four years ago after playing in the second warm-up game against France.
"The next day I got a phone call from [then head coach] Brian Ashton telling me I wasn't in the mix. It was different for me then - I had only a couple of caps at the time. But the chance to go to World Cups and on Lions tours is why we play the game and the disappointment at missing out is like nothing else."
Lock Tom Palmer can testify to similar feelings, having also suffered the pain of rejection in 2007.
"I know how heartbreaking it can be to miss out after working so hard," he said. "It was definitely the biggest disappointment of my career, worse than losing a cup final or even being relegated."
Another member of the current squad to have experienced all manner of selectorial trauma down the years is Simon Shaw, who will be 38 by the time the 2011 tournament kicks off next month.
In 2003, Shaw was driving a removal van across London, trying to get his wife and then three-week-old daughter settled in their new home before heading off to Australia - or so he thought - when his mobile rang for a third time.
He had trouble making out the voice on the other end. "Hello...hello...Simon, this is Clive Woodward. Sorry, but you haven't made the World Cup squad."
"When it came to the personal touch Clive didn't hang about in giving you bad news," recalled Shaw, who admits he used a few choice words in Woodward's direction, and put the phone down on the future knight.
"I was left parked at the side of the road in this removal van looking very odd to passers-by. All they would have seen was a large, irate man swearing at the top of his voice, alone in the cab."
Simon Shaw will be 38 by the time the World Cup kicks off but could still win a place in the squad. Picture: Getty
As it turned out, Shaw was called out to Australia as a replacement for the injured Danny Grewcock, and became infamous for picking up a World Cup winners medal without playing a single minute in the tournament.
If Shaw misses out this time, it will probably be because Johnson - as Woodward and Ashton did - has decided he can get away with three specialist locks because he has a back-row player who can fill in there if required. In 2003 and 2007, it was Martin Corry. This time it could be Tom Croft.
"It is something I have always done throughout my career," Croft told BBC Sport. "I have always had a bit of time in the second row. It doesn't overly faze me. If 'Johnno' or 'Wellsey' [forwards coach John Wells] ask me to go into the second row, I will do it because that is their choice."
The overall balance of the squad in terms of forwards and backs (most likely a 16-14 split) may already be decided, with Johnson and his coaches mulling over the final choices.
Assuming Ben Foden, Delon Armitage, Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto are on the plane, should an extra back-three spot go to Charlie Sharples or Ugo Monye? Or will both of them miss out, with Matt Banahan - also considered as a centre - providing the other wing option?
If Mike Tindall, Manu Tuilagi, Banahan, Toby Flood and Jonny Wilkinson are all going, does he take one or two inside centres - Shontayne Hape, Riki Flutey or both? If Flutey goes, will he act as emergency fly-half cover? Or does Johnson take a third 10 in Charlie Hodgson?
Is a third scrum-half - probably Richard Wigglesworth over Joe Simpson - behind Ben Youngs and Danny Care a luxury or essential? Does he free up a spot elsewhere and use Foden in an emergency?
Four or five props? If only four, then Andrew Sheridan, Dan Cole, Matt Stevens and Alex Corbisiero look inked in. If five, David Wilson appears likely to get the nod over Paul Doran-Jones.
If he only takes three locks, will Shaw or Deacon be the unfortunate one? (assuming Courtney Lawes and Tom Palmer are in, and Mouritz Botha is the outsider)
And assuming Lewis Moody is fit to travel, should a sixth back-row spot go to open-side specialist Hendre Fourie, or the versatile Chris Robshaw, who can cover all three positions?
Decisions, decisions. And agony aplenty for those on the wrong end of them.