Healey calls on England to show that old Johnno spirit

Motor-mouth can't keep quiet as players fall short of his old friend's standards
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The Independent Online

To a man obviously in love with the game of rugby – and speaking about it – Austin Healey's new role analysing the Premiership for ESPN next season should be the dreamiest of dream jobs. But there is one the motor-mouthed Healey rates higher. "Martin Johnson is hugely passionate about what he does," he says of the England manager, who also happens to be one of his best mates. "He's certainly feeling the pressure of the job, and who wouldn't be? But I've basically said to him 'I don't know what the problem is, it's the best job in the entire world, just think, you could be on the front line in Pakistan'."

Healey has plenty of chances to bend Johnson's cauliflower ear on the subject, not least their games of six-a-side football every Friday night with some Leicester City old boys. "There's Steve Walsh, Muzzy Izzet, Gerry Taggart," says Healey. A good standard then? "Well it is until me and Johnno get on the pitch. Mainly Johnno. It starts off pretty well, then I abuse his coaching technique and he spends the rest of the time trying to kick me. It's good fun."

"It is a big responsibility that Martin wants to deliver on," says Healey, who has presented quiz shows and done a mean tango on Strictly Come Dancing since his England career of 51 caps, most of them playing alongside his former Leicester club-mate. "I'm sure he sees his own mistakes. But ultimately as a coach it is not just down to you. I read what Clive Woodward said, that it would be ridiculous to keep Martin and change the other [England] coaches. I disagree. The other coaches have to do their job and, to me, [attack coach] Brian Smith has not delivered since taking over. We've seen one or two glimpses of good preparation, good set-up, good analysis. But the majority of it has been mundane, dire rubbish."

It was far from that when Healey and England, with Brian Ashton as backs coach and Johnson as captain, were in their attacking pomp around 2001. Remember the Liverpool Lip and his overhead chip to make a try for Mike Catt against France at Twickenham? It is, and has always been, says the Wallasey-born Healey, a matter of a vision shared, not dictated.

"What a massive opportunity the Australia tour is," he says of next month's five-match trip for which Johnson will name a squad on Tuesday. "A tour with a year to go before the World Cup, on foreign soil, where you can show you've got real cojones.

"The best thing Danny Cipriani could do is to walk up to Martin, have a bit of a chat and if he gets a bit of flak, slot Johnno. Punch him straight in the face. It would show him he's up for the scrap, he's up for the fight. And I think he is. Maybe people just doubt it. Maybe he needs to prove himself.

"The big question for me is the actual mindset and desire instilled in the players. I don't believe the balance between coaches and players is right within the England squad. If we have a scrum on the left-hand side of the field – whether it's 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60 metres out from the line – I'd be absolutely desperate as a nine or a 10 or a winger to be calling some kind of strike move, to try and score from first phase. And that's the mentality the coach should be giving the players, that you actually can score from first phase.

"There's players with an enormous amount of talent. We've got two or three who could be world-class. But they need to start setting their own standards. For too many years England have followed other nations, we haven't been the benchmark."

Surely Johnson stands for nothing less? "I'm 100 per cent sure he's trying to. But it needs to be a shared response and if the players aren't up to it they need to go. I like [full-back] Ben Foden. He's a big, strong, physical lad, he loves his rugby, you can see it means everything to him, he'll do whatever it takes. You look at some of the others, look at them closely, and I'm not sure you'd come out with the same response."

Healey would not discard Jonny Wilkinson, arguing that Mike Tindall alongside him would produce more than this year's Six Nations partnership with Riki Flutey. And he has been delighted by the "freedom" in the Premiership since referees altered their handling of the breakdown.

"I read another good thing recently," says Healey, "with [England defence coach] Mike Ford's sons Joe and George. They didn't just say 'I want to play for England', they said 'I want to be the best player England's ever had'. And I thought 'thank God someone's actually said that'. I could name six or seven members of the 2003 England squad who would have said that, in front of people. Not to blow their own trumpet but because they actually believed it. That belief thing is something England need to find. You can't fake confidence."

Austin Healey will be lead analyst on ESPN's coverage of the Premiership from next season