Chris Hewett: Policy of sacking good coaches for no reason has come home to roost

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The Independent Online

Four matches, three defeats, 10 tries and 115 points conceded on home turf. Where, in the name of all that is holy, do England go from here?

They would go into hiding, given half a chance. Sadly for them, disappearance is not an option in the all-too-public world of Test rugby. The new back-room team, headed up by an English sporting icon in Martin Johnson and boasting a super-sharp Australian coach in Brian Smith, had unfettered access to their players under the deal signed between the governing body and the Premiership clubs earlier in the year – a benefit seldom, if ever, enjoyed by the likes of Clive Woodward, Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton.

They did not make it count. Experienced coaches from around the world failed to understand the red-rose strategy, to the extent that they wondered whether there was a strategy. No wonder the rest of us were mystified. Without a clear sense of direction, England will never find their way out of the maze.

But surely it was always a thankless task squaring up to teams who had spent an entire southern hemisphere season together and were playing with rhythm and understanding?

You can't have it both ways. When England go south in June, at the end of the European campaign, they always claim to be tired, beaten-up, careworn and ready for the beach.

When the Wallabies, the Springboks and the All Blacks come north in the autumn, they are always said to have the advantage of familiarity. Johnson's players had been through two months of hard Premiership and Heineken Cup activity, but had also benefited from adequate rest. They should have been massively more competitive than they were.

Please, give us some solace. Was there nothing positive to emerge from a month of ritual humiliation?

Delon Armitage. There you go. The new full-back – drafted into the England squad from the remote end of nowhere because of injuries and the decision of the coaching team to marginalise Josh Lewsey – gave the Twickenham crowd (poorly behaved by rugby standards, it has to be said) something to savour. He enjoyed a fine debut, albeit against the disappointing Pacific Islanders, and then grew into the shirt during the less forgiving contests that followed. Graham Henry, the All Blacks coach, said Armitage offered "real possibilities" when asked about him on Saturday night. It was quite an accolade.

Is that it, then? One solitary newcomer?

Nick Easter was decent enough at No 8; in fact, his performance against New Zealand was the best of his Test career to date. John Wells, the England forwards coach, said before the first international that the Harlequins back-rower was quicker and more dynamic than he had been during last year's World Cup, and he was proved right. There were good things from Tom Rees, who should never have been dropped for the All Blacks game, and James Haskell. England have plenty to work with in the loose-forward department, especially now that Luke Narraway is fit and scoring tries for Gloucester.

Thanks for that. Now give us the bad news.

The midfield is not working. One glimpse of Conrad Smith's attacking creativity at outside centre on Saturday was enough to emphasise the burning need for a change of approach by the selectors, who must now seriously consider restoring Mathew Tait to the position. As for the tight-forward unit, the less said the better. England conceded important points directly from their own set-piece feeds against both Australia and New Zealand – a scandalous failure, given the scrummaging tradition in this country. Whenever the red-rose army have prevailed over the three Sanzar nations, they have outmuscled them at close quarters. Worryingly, props and locks are in short supply these days.

What about Steve Borthwick? The captain has taken some serious stick in recent weeks.

Interestingly, both Henry and Wayne Smith, the outstanding New Zealand attack coach, singled out Borthwick for praise at the weekend. "He'll be a bloody good captain for England if they just give him time," Smith said. "I'm genuinely impressed by his attitude, his knowledge and his skills."

If England were interested in short-term fixes, Johnson would board a train for Bath tomorrow and beg Danny Grewcock to consider a return to the international fold, for Borthwick needs a bit of nasty alongside him. The long-term answer is probably Nick Kennedy, despite being not nearly nasty enough at the moment. Can a player learn such a thing? If anyone can find a way to teach it, Johnson must be the man.

England play Six Nations matches in Cardiff and Dublin after Christmas. Is there any hope at all?

With the best will in the world, it is difficult to see them winning in either city. Johnson can change five of his elite squad in January, but as the manager says, the best players are already involved, with the exceptions of James Simpson-Daniel, the Gloucester wing, and David Strettle of Harlequins. As per usual, the Premiership clubs will get the blame for England's deficiencies: too many foreign players, too much tactical negativity, blah-di-blah-di-blah.

The real problems have been caused by the Rugby Football Union's management board, whose brilliantly thought-out policy of sacking good coaches for no good reason has come home to roost. The All Blacks stuck with Henry after the 2007 World Cup catastrophe. On Saturday, their faith was rewarded.

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