Martin Johnson's politics are unknown but he shares with David Cameron a penchant for dark suits and shirts without a tie. While Cameron has a few months to sort out his bid for No 10, the Six Nations Championship is less than a week away, and one former team-mate of Johnson's believes the England manager's division of labour is not working. "There's no player there yet who's brave enough and big enough to tell the coaches to eff off," said Jerry Guscott. "I just think there's a lot of confusion within the England squad and the management, unless there's something going on none of us know about and all of a sudden it'll click and explode."
Centenary-celebrating Twickenham will be a combustible venue for blast-off when Wales come calling next Saturday, and the opening two rounds of the Championship will follow the same schedule as 2008, when Johnson's predecessor, Brian Ashton, was in charge.
If England's results are the same – a home defeat by the Welsh and a stutteringly narrow win in Italy – Johnson can expect critical bombs to come raining down. Guscott, the lavishly gifted centre who won 65 caps and shared the last of his three Grand Slams with Johnson in 1995, is now a seasoned BBC TV pundit. He says it's time for the rank and file to deflect the flak.
"If you look at any good side there's some strong characters in it," said Guscott. "Look at Wales when they won the Grand Slam in 2005 – they were so strong they got rid of the winning coach. Ireland, right now, who runs that side? [Declan] Kidney or the players? I'd say it's the players. O'Driscoll, O'Connell, O'Gara – they've been around for years, they run that side, they know what's required. It needs an England back to say to [attack coach] Brian Smith and Martin Johnson and [the forwards coach] John Wells 'give us the decent ball, don't give us ball when we're static and nobody's got over the gainline. Don't give us crap that we can only kick away – give us ball on the front foot'."
Johnson may not agree with the proposition, but he and Guscott (long-time club adversaries, too, with Leicester and Bath) appear to be as one on the answer. "I think Riki Flutey is the key to England's success, without a doubt," says Guscott. "At the end of last season he had turned into a bit of a Will Greenwood – he was running the show, making half-breaks, getting the passes out. He is also a bloody big tackler for his size, he will smash into players and put them down, so he's got the inspirational leadership quality in the way he plays. What he needs to do is force himself on Brian Smith and say 'this is what we're capable of doing'. I'm hoping that Flutey is of that age, and that good, to say 'what have you been doing since I last played for England? I'm in control'."
The last reference is to the New Zealand-born Flutey's absence – along with half a dozen other first choices – from England's autumn Tests. Before that the 29-year-old spent a half-fit summer with the Lions, shining only when picked for the final, victorious Test.
It is the memory of last year's Six Nations, and particularly the Twickenham wins over Scotland and France in which Flutey at inside centre dovetailed with fly-half Toby Flood, which has been tiding England over. "I think some of the other scores in the autumn put ours into context," Johnson said. "We conceded one try against New Zealand, who put five on France the following week. But the ability to turn our territory into five and seven points rather than three is important. That side of the game is probably the hardest to coach and get into a team. Injuries affect that more than they do other parts of the game. It's certainly an area we can improve in."
The sooner the better, says Guscott. He expects to see an England side based on Dylan Hartley, Borthwick, Simon Shaw, Lewis Moody, James Haskell and Nick Easter in the forwards, and Danny Care, Jonny Wilkinson, Flutey, Mathew Tait or Shontayne Hape, Ugo Monye, Mark Cueto and Delon Armitage behind. "I think they should go with Tait at outside centre," said Guscott. "He can fade on to the long outside pass from Jonny – and they should give him the Six Nations to play that style. That back line would have the potential to destroy defensive lines. But it has got to be given good front-foot ball on a consistent basis. Let Flutey be the playmaker which is more difficult to defend, further out, because although Jonny Wilkinson's world class, he's a guy who's more adept at being told what to do than telling. You watch England, they play three phases of rugby and it's 'what do we do next?' and they kick it – and they don't even kick it well. Martin Johnson's the only man who believes Steve Borthwick should be captain. The players look to the touchline to find out what they're going to do next. How many times have you seen an England player run from depth and smash into a defensive line? It just doesn't happen."
Armitage, the London Irish full-back who, like Flutey, spent the autumn nursing a mangled shoulder, might beg to differ. But the point stands up. Leinster's back line – most of whom will wear the green of the Grand Slam champions Ireland in the Six Nations – showed off backs moves against London Irish at Twickenham last weekend which headquarters has grown weary of waiting for from England. The Six Nations title has gone to France (three times), Wales twice and Ireland since England last won it in 2003.
Johnson knows all the stats – England's three straight wins over France, three straight defeats to Wales and losses at Murrayfield on the last two visits – and says they mean as much or as little as you like.
Nick Mallett, the Italy coach, sees significance in the argument over how best to deploy Tait. "They picked Johnson for his aura," said Mallett, "for his 'mana' as they say in New Zealand. The most difficult thing is getting that on to the pitch. A passionate coach will have a passionate team in his image. Johnson is known for being pragmatic, so he might have to forget about some player who scored a nice try for Sale, and pick the players who fit his style." Guscott suspects as much too. "Defensively, of course, a centre partnership of Flutey and Hape instead would be bloody powerful. But you'd have to play a totally different game in attack."
England: One to watch
Delon Armitage One of half a dozen members of the England squad about whom there is the lump-in-the-throat caveat that they may still be playing themselves in after injury. Assuming no physical or mental shackles to bind him, Armitage can refresh our memories of his off-the-cuff elan in attack and solid skills as the last line of defence. From not quite nowhere – he had, after all, spent two seasons with the England Saxons – Armitage took last season by the scruff of the neck. Then he pranged a shoulder. In an England back division traditionally replete with stodge (give or take a couple of years featuring Will Greenwood, Mike Catt, Austin Healey and the like), the importance of the London Irishman cannot be over-stated.
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