'Hysterical' critics rile Johnson

England manager vows to retain staff for Six Nations despite 'personal' criticism
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The Independent Online

Say or think what you like about this England regime, Martin Johnson is not a man for turning. England's manager will march into next year's Six Nations Championship at the head of the same coaching team he inherited, and stuck by, 18 months ago.

Despite mounting criticism from supporters, reporters and ex-international players, concerned by another disappointing autumn series comprising three Tests, two defeats, one win and no joy whatsoever, Johnson remains solidly behind attack coach Brian Smith, defence coach Mike Ford, forwards' coach John Wells and scrummaging coach Graham Rowntree.

Bellowing from the same hymn sheet at Twickenham yesterday was the elite rugby director, Rob Andrew. "Martin picks his coaches and selects the team," Andrew said. "We have embarked on a long-term process and it is inevitable that we'll encounter some bumps along the way. I have total faith in what we have in place."

Equally inevitable is the picture flashing into many a mind, of ostrich backsides pointing at the sky and not a beak in sight. Because the Six Nations has to be the worst place for a team in desperate search of confidence and cohesion. Wales at home, a trip to Rome, Grand Slam champions Ireland at Twickenham, and that's just February. England's month of March is all about away days, first in warm and welcoming Edinburgh, then to France for a late-night romp in St-Denis.

To win a first title since 2003 via that schedule would be a majestic achievement. But it is hard to envisage. What is not difficult to predict, however, is how failure in the Six Nations could bring the whole edifice crashing down. England's record under Johnson is six victories from 14 Tests, and while selection has been reduced to a lottery because of a quite appalling spate of injuries, the fare served up at Twickenham this month made it alarmingly obvious that the Saxons set-up is not delivering the strength in depth required.

Why else would Johnson call up Paul Doran-Jones, a prop from Gloucester who had to be introduced to the squad upon arrival at England's Bagshot HQ, and Courtney Lawes, a 20-year-old Northampton lock? Johnson lost 13 members of his elite player squad to injury before a ball was kicked in anger, and to underestimate the impact of such a fall-out is to err seriously.

However, the alarm bells have been up to migraine level because of the persistent impotence of England's attack, the lack of pace off the breakdown, slow ball and lateral ball-shuffling from wing to wing without denting the gain-line. That is why the coaches, rather than Johnson, have copped all the recent flak.

Josh Lewsey tore into the coaching set-up last week, but yesterday issued an apology to his victims. Johnson insists his men have been treated poorly, but issued a gentle reminder that he is not afraid to wave a blade around if required. He said: "We are working hard in every area to become better. We seemed to attract more criticism after beating Argentina than we did for losing to Australia and New Zealand, but I put that down to our first-half performance which was over-cautious in difficult conditions.

"But some of the criticism directed at our coaching staff has been personal, often wide of the mark, sometimes hysterical and even ridiculous. Look at what flak John [Wells] has taken, a guy whose CV includes helping England reach the 2007 World Cup final and winning two Heineken Cups and four Premiership titles as coach of Leicester.

"Criticising the coaches has become the thing to say when results go against England, but closer analysis reveals many other factors that contribute to a game's outcome. It is not nice to sack people, not very nice to drop guys, sometimes when they have played well. But I will take action for the good of the team if and when I feel it necessary."

Andrew believes rugby may have to get to grips with the growing injury crisis blighting the game in general. He said: "Injuries within the England squad this year have risen, from 25 per cent to 30 per cent. But during the autumn, we lost 40 per cent of both our senior squad and the Saxons, and that is simply not sustainable. If the upward trend of injuries continues as it is going, the game will have to address it, even if it means more law changes."

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