Six Nations: New skipper Easter can egg on the England Grand Slam

LEADING LIGHT: Nick Easter will be leading England into battle against Ireland in Dublin tomorrow as they look to wrap up the Grand Slam. PIC: PA
LEADING LIGHT: Nick Easter will be leading England into battle against Ireland in Dublin tomorrow as they look to wrap up the Grand Slam. PIC: PA
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Nick Easter will captain England against Ireland in tomorrow’s RBS Six Nations Championship clash in Dublin after Mike Tindall was ruled out with an ankle ligament strain.

Matt Banahan will make his second Test start at outside centre in place of Otley-born Tindall, who was injured in England’s 22-16 victory over Scotland last weekend.

Saracens wing David Strettle, whose last Test appearance for England came against New Zealand on the 2008 summer tour, will fill the vacant backs position on the bench.

Also on the bench again will be Leeds Carnegie hooker Steve Thompson.

Coach Martin Johnson has otherwise kept changes to a minimum as England seek a win which would clinch a first Grand Slam since 2003.

With Banahan starting, the England manager will have used only 17 starting players in the championship.

Leicester flanker Tom Croft remains among the replacements, despite marking his comeback from a fractured shoulder with a try-scoring appearance off the bench against Scotland.

Easter, who took over the leadership reins when Tindall was forced off at half-time against Scotland, first captained England in a Test match in last November’s victory over Samoa.

That was also the game in which Banahan, 24, made his Test start at outside centre after winning his first five England caps on the wing.

The 6ft 7in Channel Islander made a forceful impact when he replaced Tindall in England’s midfield at half-time against Scotland.

There were some fears that Banahan could have been cited after a clash with Kelly Brown, which led to the Scotland number eight being stretchered off.

The Bath player had always denied leading with the forearm as he ran into Brown’s attempted tackle and the citing officer concluded that there was no case to answer.

Johnson said he has been delighted with the team’s attitude in training so far this week.

“The players have been great,” he said. “We had a small group meeting earlier in the week and they were talking about how to play better – how to get a grip back on the game.

“We just need to be really smart with the ball in this game, control it really well and put pressure on Ireland.”

Johnson added: “The depth of the squad is good. Lots of guys have stepped in and done really well.”

On the loss of Tindall, Johnson said: “It’s a big blow and really disappointing for Mike – he’s had a few injuries over the years.

“He has been with us all the way through the autumn and this campaign and has led us very well.

“But Matt Banahan has been in great form. He was on the wing early on but he’s played quite a bit at 13 with Bath.

“He’s been very good and hopefully it will be a pretty smooth transition.”

Johnson admitted it was a tough call to leave Croft out of the starting line-up, saying: “Like Jonny Wilkinson, there’s always a good reason to pick these players because they’re world class.

“But the guys who’ve been there have been playing very well so far and Croft gives us some real impact off the bench against the Irish.”

England team: Foden, Ashton, Banahan, Hape, Cueto, Flood, Youngs, Easter (capt), Haskell, Wood, Palmer, Deacon, Cole, Hartley, Corbisiero. Replacements: Thompson, Doran-Jones, Shaw, Croft, Care, Wilkinson, Strettle.

● Wales coach Warren Gatland has made two enforced changes for tomorrow’s RBS 6 Nations finale against France in Paris.

Teenage wing George North will make his Six Nations debut as replacement for knee injury victim Shane Williams, while Ospreys prop Adam Jones returns to the pack.

Jones, who has played just 20 minutes rugby since suffering an elbow injury in mid-January, takes over from Ospreys colleague Craig Mitchell.

Mitchell is unlikely to play again this season after dislocating his shoulder during Wales’ 19-13 victory over Ireland at the Millennium Stadium last weekend.

Gatland has otherwise retained the side that accounted for Ireland, with North, 19, on the left wing in a back three that also comprises Lee Byrne and Leigh Halfpenny.

Wales still have an outside chance of winning the Six Nations title, but they would need to beat France by 20-plus points and hope England suffer a similarly-sized defeat against Ireland.