Johnno must be cunning and cussed like Sir Clive

Incredible backing from RFU but England look far from a force on world stage

The viciously circular arguments currently accompanying England down the plughole of the world rankings need to be cut through and clarified by a top-class manager. Perhaps Martin Johnson will find the inspiration he needs in New Zealand, where the powers that be kept faith with their coaches even after the failure at the last World Cup.

Johnson's last pronouncement before he set off on a four-day trip Down Under to look at facilities for the 2011 World Cup was on Thursday in a Twickenham conference room named after Edward Elgar. Sitting cross-legged before an orchestra of notebooks, Johnson was asked what he had learnt in a year and a bit in his first managerial role, and what he was working on to improve himself.

"What have I learnt? A tremendous amount, day to day. I think we got there towards the end of [this year's] Six Nations, in terms of creating a group which has a conscience and a will, rather than having 20 guys thrown together to put the England shirt on. One of the positives of this autumn is we had more time as a group, developing leadership and responsibility throughout the team, though it's difficult to talk about that when you have lost games.

"In terms of me and getting better, you've got your eyes and ears open all the time. As a player, you never stop learning and trying to improve, and that's where I am, where we are."

It was unrevealing in its specifics but perhaps Johnson is simply winging it as England manager, as when he jokingly answered a question on the national side's coaching from Austin Healey on BBC TV last week: "Why, do you fancy a job?" Either that or he is striving hard behind the scenes but feels it unnecessary to justify himself, given the backing he has from the RFU. "Martin picks his coaching team, Martin picks the team," said Rob Andrew, the elite rugby director. "We will support what Martin wants to do around that."

There was no time to quiz either man on why only half-a-dozen of England's Under-20 World Championship runners-up are playing regularly in the Premiership; or to delve too far into the global concern over defensive domination at the breakdown. Andrew said the RFU would be "lobbying effectively" over the IRB's refereeing protocol in Dublin next Tuesday, though it would take a supreme optimist to see a change restoring power to the attacker as helping England any more than, say, the Welsh, French and New Zealanders.

When Johnson was asked to name examples where he had not been conservative in selection, he quoted Ayoola Erinle's selection ahead of Shane Geraghty at inside-centre against New Zealand. Well, it was radical in that it did not lead to England bringing off many backs moves from the reputedly fulsome playbook of Brian Smith, the attack coach. Jonny Wilkinson tended to stand deep, said Johnson, because he was told to.

Of course Erinle only got a look-in after injuries to Riki Flutey, Toby Flood, Olly Barkley, Jordan Turner-Hall, Mike Tindall and Dom Waldouck. The debate remains dizzyingly nebulous over whether England's lean results are down to poor coaching, injuries, dodgy technique propagated in the Premiership or some combination of these and a hundred other factors. Johnson's selections of Delon Arm-itage, Flutey and Joe Worsley paid off last season. What we have yet to see is the cunning and cussedness of Sir Clive Woodward, who wielded political power and got under the opposition's skin. But then Woodward had a team of several world-class players, captained by guess who.

Whatever, Johnson's role now is very similar to that of Woodward up to 2004: to pick the team but do hardly any hands-on coaching. Smith was Johnson's choice, and seems secure. John Wells has done a long stint with the forwards and his lack of public profile would make a change uncontroversial. Johnson was rebuffed when he went looking for Shaun Edwards as defence coach and the Wasps man now has a contract with Wales to 2011. Still, the England incumbent Mike Ford's "I'm staying put" appearance on radio last Monday was a curious statement of the status quo. Maybe mid-winter or summer will yet see a reshuffle.

Johnson will have thought long and hard about England's pool draw in the World Cup, where to finish second almost certainly means meeting the All Blacks in the quarter-finals. To avoid this fate, England must beat Argentina and Scotland. No wonder Johnson took solace from winning two of this year's three Tests with the Pumas; his team also thrashed the Scots last spring and will view the visit next March to Edinburgh – where England lost under Andy Robinson in 2006 and utterly abjectly under Brian Ashton in 2008 – as a crucial benchmark.

Johnson's potted biography in Twickenham's autumn programmes comprised 172 words; 12 of them described his managerial career and two of those were his name. He has two years up to and including the big event in New Zealand to achieve something worth writing home about.

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