Johnson backs Six Nations

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Martin Johnson believes the World Cup would become devalued if England and France joined rugby union’s three Southern Hemisphere heavyweights to contest an annual tournament.

The England captain yesterday joined manager Clive Woodward by throwing his weight behind the Six Nations Championship.

Australian Rugby Union chief executive John O’Neill has claimed there is a case for England and France linking up with Tri-Nations rivals Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Six Nations critics say England have outgrown the home countries - their 44-15 victory over Wales 11 days ago seemingly underlining that point - and claim they need regular Southern Hemisphere action in order to challenge for World Cup honours. England are expected to sweep aside Italy at Twickenham on Saturday, with France seen as the biggest hurdle on a relentless quest for a grand slam.

But Johnson insists the Six Nations competition commands its own respect: "Personally, I believe that if we moved into playing a regular tournament against the Southern Hemisphere sides then we would be playing them too much.

"I also believe that by playing those teams every year the World Cup would become devalued. The Six Nations is a great tournament and I hope that it will always be there for me to play in.

"It captures the imagination of people who don’t even follow the sport."

Italy’s fourth visit to Twickenham will be played in front of a 75,000 sell-out crowd on Saturday. The Italians, minus injured playmaker Diego Dominguez and suspended scrum-half Alessandro Troncon, are due to arrive in London today.

Dominguez is still nursing a lower back problem, while Troncon must serve a three-week ban following his dismissal for punching Ireland’s Peter Stringer in Rome earlier this month.

Ireland have drafted wing Shane Horgan into their squad for Saturday’s match against France in Dublin. Tyrone Howe missed yesterday’s training session with a virus. Horgan’s place in tomorrow’s A game goes to John Kelly, with Jonathan Bell moving up to the bench.

Pau scrum-half Philippe Carbonneau has been drafted into the French side. He takes over from Fabien Galthie, suspended after being yellow-carded during a club match. That is the only change made by coach Bernard Laporte as he tries to build team spirit.

France: X Garbajosa (Toulouse); P Bernat-Salles (Biarritz), F Comba (Stade Francais), R Dourthe (Beziers), D Bory (Montferrand); C Lamaison (Agen), P Carbonneau (Pau); S Marconnet (Stade Francais), R Ibanez (Castres), P de Villiers, D Auradou (both Stade Francais), F Pelous (Toulouse, capt), C Moni (Stade Francais), O Magne (Montferrand), C Juillet (Stade Francais). Subs: O Azam (Gloucester), C Califano (Toulouse), A Benazzi (Agen), S Betsen (Biarritz), C Laussucq (Stade Francais), G Merceron (Montferrand), C Dominici (Stade Francais).

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