Martin Johnson is bombproof. Whatever happens over the course of the autumn internationals, which begin with a match against Australia a week tomorrow, the old Leicester hard head will take England to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. It is all but certain that the current hands-on coaching team – Brian Smith, John Wells, Mike Ford and Graham Rowntree – will also be in place when the party flies to All Black country in a little under two years' time. The Rugby Football Union's lynch mob has finally discovered patience, not to mention pacifism.
"We've made it very clear that Martin is here to take this team through to the World Cup," said Rob Andrew, the governing body's director of elite rugby and Johnson's immediate boss. "When he came in as manager, he said he would look at the coaching team over the first year. He's made no changes to the set-up."
And if this autumn turns out to be as bad as last autumn, when England suffered humiliations right, left and centre? "We'll deal with what happens when it happens," Andrew replied, "but this is a World Cup group going through to the tournament." The recent injury epidemic that has deprived Johnson of a dozen members of his original squad, four of them senior front-row forwards, means England have a ready excuse for failure, although the manager himself is hardly the sort to reach for it. Andrew said the RFU was still gathering information about current injury levels in the professional game but added: "The indications are that while training injury numbers have remained constant, there may have been a rise in match situations."
Australia, who will arrive in England battle-hardened as a result of this weekend's Bledisloe Cup meeting with New Zealand in Tokyo, have injury issues of their own, not least the one affecting the outstanding young centre Berrick Barnes, whose midfield partnership with Matt Giteau is fast blossoming into something special. Barnes suffered an ankle injury in training yesterday and definitely misses the date with the All Blacks.
Wallaby staff said there was no fracture, but were unable to give a categorical assurance that Barnes would stay on the tour. For tomorrow's game, Adam Ashley-Cooper is expected to fill the hole at centre, with James O'Connor starting at full-back.