England coaches put on a united front amid talk of rift

Johnson's staff pull together to face music as criticism of lacklustre England grows
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The Independent Online

The raiders are streaming over the hills and the wagons have been drawn in a circle.

England's coaching team, badly stung by reaction to the national team's lamentable performance – leaden-footed, slow-witted, deeply unsatisfactory – against an understrength Argentina last weekend, were in full defensive formation yesterday, determined to protect each other from the worst ravages of the criticism. Their show of unity was rather impressive in its way, but these people know better than most that battles of this kind usually end badly.

"Some of the criticism is out of order," snarled Graham Rowntree, the specialist scrummaging coach, who could not have been more blunt had he been grappling with a heavyweight Puma prop in the heat of Saturday's contest. "I'm sick of all this stuff about John Wells, who is one of the best practitioners around – and I've worked with plenty. It's uncalled for. There you are: end of rant."

Brian Smith, the attack strategist, also had Wells on his mind. Asked point-blank whether he and the forwards coach were coming at this England business from different ends of the philosophical spectrum, he replied: "Look, we're a united ship. Any philosophical differences have been talked out and we're on a common path. There are some nasty scuttlebuck rumours going around."

According to Smith, widely assumed to be the resident radical in a coaching set-up dominated by old Leicester hard-heads (Wells, Rowntree, the manager Martin Johnson), the narrowly-focused, profoundly conservative approach taken by England against the South Americans was entirely his call. "This perception that we were playing for a 0-0 draw is wholly wrong," he said, "but we'd trained all week for a wet-weather match and my message before the start was 'let's make sure we don't get caught in our own half'. I wish now that I'd kept my mouth shut, but I have to put my hand up."

He sounded convincing enough but, just at the moment, the rugby public is not of a mind to take things at face value. Perception is nine-tenths of the law when it comes to the England team, and the perception right now is that things are not as they should be among the back-room staff. Partly, this is down to the difficulty in identifying precisely what it is that the players are trying to achieve – the lack of collectivity and connectivity, the transparent absence of joined-up thinking. And partly it is because both Wells and the defence coach, Mike Ford, were in place before Johnson's arrival, having served in the previous regimes run by Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton.

Frequently, it is said that Johnson was forced into a coaching inheritance he did not really want – that he was denied the opportunity to piece together a support staff of his own design. But this is entirely incorrect. When Johnson was so bloodily installed in Ashton's place a little over 18 months ago, he was given carte blanche by Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby at Twickenham, to appoint his own staff. He talked to two men: Shaun Edwards, of Wasps and Wales, and Smith, who was running the shop at London Irish. Edwards, a defence specialist, rejected his invitation, while Smith accepted the attack role previously performed by Ashton. So it was that Ford stayed on board, along with Wells and Rowntree, whose positions were never questioned.

Johnson played hundreds of club games alongside Wells, one of the finest English flankers never to win a full international cap, and spent much of his career with Rowntree, both in the Leicester and red-rose environments. The suggestion that he should move against either of them – a suggestion that will certainly gather support, especially in the case of the long-serving Wells, if the team lose heavily to New Zealand this weekend – will be anathema to him. But if the manager is to maintain his place in the affections of a rugby audience who still revere him for his World Cup-winning exploits six years ago, he will surely have to act in the event of another calamity at the hands of a southern-hemisphere superpower.

Yet even if the former captain grabs the bull by the horns and reshapes the coaching team ahead of the Six Nations Championship – hardly a likelihood, unless Andrew orders him to do so – the most serious issue will remain unaddressed. That is Johnson himself, or rather, the role he agreed to take on after the Rugby Football Union decided, bizarrely and brutally, that second-place finishes at the 2007 World Cup and in the following year's Six Nations did not entitle Ashton to their continued support.

Johnson is both a manager who has never managed and a de facto head coach who has never coached. Virtually every other serious rugby nation on earth has a career coach making the decisions. England? They have chosen to do it differently ... and less well.

The innate conservatism of the current selection policy was underlined yesterday when Johnson declared two of his most exciting young talents, the Northampton pairing of Ben Foden and Courtney Lawes, surplus to requirements. Foden might have expected a run at full-back following the indignities suffered by the miscast Ugo Monye against Argentina, while Lawes must have been confident of staying in the 22-man squad.

As expected, the 36-year-old lock Simon Shaw will play. So too will Mathew Tait, at full-back or off the bench. The Sale player, considered by good judges to be the most gifted attacking centre in the country, was overlooked for the first two games, but is guaranteed some sort of role at the weekend.

Andy Goode's early departure from the squad means Shane Geraghty will act as Jonny Wilkinson's understudy in the outside-half and goal-kicking departments. Geraghty played at inside centre against both Australia and the Pumas, and is expected to fill the position again this weekend.

They call the shots: Who's who in the red-rose set-up

*Brian Smith

Attack coach

A self-confessed member of the "Brian Ashton school of coaching", the Australian was head-hunted by Martin Johnson following Ashton's sudden demise last year. A brilliant defence coach at Bath, he is now the tactical force behind England's attacking game.

*Mike Ford

Defence coach

Like Wells, he joined the England fraternity after the sackings of Phil Larder, Dave Alred and Joe Lydon in 2006. Again like Wells, he survived the Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton regimes to team up with Johnson. Former employers include Saracens and Ireland.

*Graham Rowntree

Scrummaging coach

Considered one of the brightest new coaches. An effective communicator, his star is in the ascendant – especially after helping the Lions' scrum recover its equilibrium in South Africa.

*John Wells

Forwards coach

Crucial to Leicester's success in 2001-'02. Recruited to this job after the "day of the long knives" in 2006, when the RFU finally broke up the World Cup-winning back-room team.