Beginnings of a red-rose revival or tipping point for Johnson's England?

The autumn internationals offer a fierce test of the manager and team's credentials with the World Cup less than a year away
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The Independent Online

Nick Easter, the England No 8, is a front-runner among the small number of candidates currently positioning themselves for a leadership challenge ahead of next year's World Cup in New Zealand.

The Harlequin has most, if not all, of the necessary credentials: he is pretty much assured of his place in the starting line-up; he knows what it is to perform at the business end of a global tournament, having played in the 2007 final against South Africa; and like Martin Johnson before him, his words rarely register so much as a blip on the bullshit detector. When he says it is high time the national team delivered something worthwhile, he means it.

"We have to start this international programme from where we finished last June, when we won in Australia," said Easter this week as he looked ahead to the autumn series at Twickenham – high-profile meetings with the Wallabies, the Samoans, the Springboks and, first up, the All Blacks, the best team on the planet. "We cannot allow that victory in Sydney to be our peak. The Aussies, in particular, will be hurting when they come to us in a couple of weeks' time, but we'll be just as hungry. We have to move things on, to take advantage of the continuity we've built up. When I first came into the team, there was so much chopping and changing: we always seemed to be starting from square one. That is no longer the case."

It was an excellent point, characteristically well made. In the two and a half years since Johnson was manoeuvred into a position of unprecedented power by a group of committee malcontents who set in train the most ruthless and shameless of Twickenham coups without ever having a clear understanding of what they were doing or why, he has been able to do things his way, with no questions asked. Money? Tell us how much, Martin. Coaching personnel? The choice is yours, Martin. Style of rugby? Play it the way you see it, Martin. Johnson's predecessors in the top job, Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton, had back-room staff foisted upon them and were granted only a fraction of the access to front-line players enjoyed by the current regime. If Easter's comments had the phrase "no excuses" as their subtext, it was with good reason.

The next four weeks amount to an acid test. The test may not be quite as conclusive as the one awaiting Johnson and his colleagues in the far-away rugby strongholds of Christchurch and Auckland next September, but it should still turn the litmus paper a deep shade of red. If England fail now, the air of negativity surrounding the side through the 2011 Six Nations and beyond will be suffocating.

What would constitute failure? There's the rub. John Steele, the newly installed chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, takes the view that two wins from four would be within the bounds of acceptability. This seems just about legitimate on the face of it, given England's recent home record against the three Sanzar nations, but in truth, it is far from the most taxing piece of target-setting in boardroom history. One of the forthcoming matches is against a time-poor, asset-destitute band of Samoan tourists who will introduce themselves to each other shortly before kick-off. Another brings the home side face to face with a Springbok team who might as well be run by South Africa's version of Brian Rix, such is their state of trouserless disarray. If England, blessed with every advantage imaginable, cannot beat these two on home soil, no amount of spin will save them from ridicule.

Three victories from four would be par for the course, and this means putting one over the All Blacks – new continents are formed with greater regularity – or registering a second successive victory over the Wallabies. There are no prizes for identifying the more likely scenario, although the Australians could do England a favour in Hong Kong today by reducing Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw, respectively the best back and the best forward in the world, to their component parts. With their stellar performers intact, the New Zealanders are terrifyingly good. Without them, they are merely brilliant.

In many respects, the meeting with Australia a fortnight today marks the tipping point for this regime. A win would give England some much-needed propulsion – not merely in terms of the second half of the autumn series, but towards the Six Nations after Christmas. They play Wales under Friday-night floodlights in the opening round of that tournament, and a three-match winning streak would do wonders for their self-esteem as they head across the Severn Bridge.

Defeat, on the other hand, would be profoundly damaging. Broadly speaking, those who witnessed the victory in Sydney four months ago fall into two camps: some felt the match was hopelessly distorted by the pitiful weakness of a second-string Wallaby tight five and were concerned that even in such propitious circumstances, England needed Matt Giteau to miss a match-winning kick in front of the sticks; others saw enough in the brat-pack performances of Chris Ashton, Ben Youngs and Courtney Lawes to announce the dawning of a new day for red-rose rugby.

Ashton, Youngs and Lawes possess the raw materials necessary to make the grade at the very top end of the game. Only a blind man or a fool would argue otherwise. But they are young, and green, and impetuous. The Wallabies have young players, too – James O'Connor, Will Genia, David Pocock – but somehow, they mature more quickly and find their feet more easily than most English players of a similar age. If these people bring the best of themselves to Twickenham on 13 November and find themselves operating behind a tight unit that does not retreat at the speed of sound, the odds about a home victory will lengthen by the minute.

And where would that leave Johnson, 10 months shy of a World Cup for which he has been preparing, with complete security of tenure, since the spring of 2008? It would leave him where he is, with nowhere else to go. That's the problem with being unsackable. As the great poet wrote: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

Four Aces: Pick of the opposition that England will face next month

New Zealand

These blokes really know how to rub it in. A couple of days after Hosea Gear had run England ragged while playing for the Maori in Napier – the wing scored three tries to take his centenary-celebrating side to a famous victory, two of them sensational and the other slightly better – the All Black coach Graham Henry was heard to say: "To be honest, we've always been a little disappointed with him when he's stepped up into the elite squad." They are disappointed no longer. Gear is on the plane, along with Cory Jane and Joe Rokocoko. Oh dear.

Throw in running backs as unpredictable (Mils Muliaina), intelligent (Conrad Smith), powerful (Ma'a Nonu) and God-gifted (Daniel Carter) and you begin to see why New Zealand fancy their chances of another successful Grand Slam tour of these islands. They are not the worst up front, either, having rediscovered the lost art of rucking through the likes of Tom Donnelly, a raw-boned lock from Rotorua, and Kieran Read, a No 8 from Papakura who is fast developing into a loose forward of the highest class. Talking of which, they also have Richie McCaw, who is in a class of his own.

Australia

The good news? No James Horwill, no Wycliff Palu. They were missing from the Wallaby pack in June and they're still missing now. The bad news? The front-row unit that did for England this time last year and were so sorely missed by the Australians back in the summer are back between the shafts. This should make the world of difference to the tourists' scrum, and as Twickenhamites know from bitter experience, the Wallabies tend to win in London if their set piece is semi-reasonable.

While they won only two of their six Tri-Nations games, they averaged 27 points a match. How many times have England put 27 or more points on Australia? Twice, in 36 attempts. The Wallabies are without Digby Ioane – the versatile back has not recovered from the serious shoulder injury he suffered during the Test defeat by England in the summer – but they still have a back division to die for, from the wide finishers (Kurtley Beale, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Drew Mitchell, James O'Connor) to the creative spirits inside them (Matt Giteau, Quade Cooper, Berrick Barnes, Will Genia). They also have a sprinkling of young seven-a-side specialists, making them even quicker than usual.

South Africa

The Springbok selectors will not make a definitive call on the shape of their Grand Slam-hunting party until the dust settles on today's domestic final between KwaZulu-Natal and Western Province, although we already know that some of the players at the heart of the 2007 World Cup-winning side – J P Pietersen, Butch James, Fourie du Preez, John Smit – will not be making the trip. As a consequence, the head coach, Peter de Villiers, is considering calling in some overseas-based personnel, so Frans Steyn and Ruan Pienaar may suddenly materialise, clad in the famous green jersey.

If this ranks as one of De Villiers' better ideas, it does not have much to beat. South African rugby, so sternly disciplined under Jake White, has grown chaotic: indeed, some of the stuff we saw from them in the course of a desperate Tri-Nations campaign bordered on the anarchic. It is transparently obvious that the men who run Springbok rugby picked the wrong successor to White, just as it is clear that some of the big beasts who hung around to play the Lions last year have outlived their usefulness. The Boks are rarely entirely hopeless, but they are there for the taking this time.

Samoa

It is perfectly possible to argue that in pure "head of population" terms, Samoa is the greatest rugby nation on earth. Depressingly, it is also among the poorest, and as the history of the union game in the professional era tells us, money talks louder than talent. When the islanders make their third appearance at Twickenham on 20 November, a week after their meeting with the Irish in Dublin, they will no doubt summon the furies in time-honoured style. And they will also lose in time-honoured style: their scrum in retreat, their line-out in pieces, their backs starved of possession in the way the country is starved of top international fixtures on home soil.

The Samoans have not yet finalised their squad, but if the pick of the Premiership contingent – Tagicakibau and Mapusua, Tuilagi and Stowers, Fuimaono-Sapolu (above) and Lemi – report for duty and combine well with the young seven-a-siders who won the IRB's world series earlier this year, they should give us something to remember them by. Their declared ambition is to beat a top-tier nation before next year's World Cup. If only they were playing Wales on this trip.

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