Will Greenwood, the thinking man's thinking midfielder, used a newspaper column at the back end of last week to ask whether England, as selected and prepared by Martin Johnson and his coaching staff, are sufficiently clever to win the forthcoming World Cup in New Zealand. It was not a question that occurred to anyone before the victorious tournament in 2003, not least because the brainpower in that team was provided by Greenwood himself. Eight years on, it is the only debating point in town.
The poverty of the midfield play against Wales in Cardiff four days ago – the narrow-mindedness of it, the predictability of it, the downright stupidity of it – gave Greenwood his answer, as if he didn't know it already. The fact that the inside centre of England's dreams has since been quoted as saying that he feels "very, very bullish" about the side's prospects in All Black country – say it ain't so, Will – merely adds to the confusion currently sloshing around red-rose circles.
Johnson was in no mood to criticise his Millennium Stadium centre pairing of Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall as he picked over the bones of the 19-9 defeat yesterday. "We get questioned about the midfield all the time," he said, "but they were good enough to win the Six Nations last season, good enough to win a Test in Australia last year. In two of the last three Six Nations, we've been the top-scoring side in the championship. It's not all bad."
Needless to say, the statistics support Johnson's argument. (Don't bother checking: the manager is never wrong when it comes to the numbers.) Yet that last phrase of his was telling, for it amounted to an admission that while the midfield isn't all bad, it isn't all good either. This from a man who, in the run-up to last weekend's game, said he would "sit here and defend Shontayne all day long".
If England's recent record against Six Nations opposition is decent enough – they scored 16 tries in five games in 2009, 13 in five earlier this year – almost 50 per cent of them were registered in two home meetings with Italy, who tend to relish their visits to Twickenham the way vegans enjoy trips to the abattoir. When it comes to matches against the southern hemisphere countries, the story is very different. Only once in nine matches from the autumn of 2009 have England won the try count in these contests, and that was when they claimed the only touchdown of the afternoon against Argentina some 21 months ago.
Not only has Johnson turned his face away from what might, for want of a better phrase, be termed England's "flair midfielders" – Danny Cipriani, Olly Barkley, Mathew Tait and James Simpson-Daniel, all of whom he dismisses as defensively frail – he has also been reluctant to field a Jonny Wilkinson-Toby Flood partnership at Nos 10 and 12. Brian Ashton, who coached England to the final of the last global tournament in 2007, has long believed Flood to be the best inside centre in the country and it is difficult to believe that Mike Ford, the defence coach then as now, has forgotten the Leicester player's organisational contribution in that key position when the team last won in France some three and a half years ago.
Interestingly, the great Wallaby playmaker Michael Lynagh, the man at the heart of Australia's successful World Cup campaign in 1991, feels a Wilkinson-Flood axis might be the best solution. He admits that it is a "bit late in the day" for such a radical rethink, but there again, he also points out that it is "a bit late in the day to be throwing in Manu Tuilagi".
As things stand, Johnson and his colleagues are gambling an awful lot on Tuilagi coming on strong in New Zealand, even though the 20-year-old naturalised Samoan has only 80 minutes of international experience behind him. Infinitely more dynamic than either Hape or Tindall, he is seen as the white-shirted answer to the All Black steamroller Ma'a Nonu. But Nonu is surrounded by the likes of Daniel Carter, Sonny Bill Williams and the Greenwood-esque outside centre Conrad Smith, all of whom bring more subtlety and variety to the mix than anyone in the red-rose squad. And it is not only the New Zealanders who lord it over the red-rose midfielders. The Australians, the Irish, the Welsh... they all create more, sometimes with far less, than their English counterparts.
Yesterday, Johnson sounded every bit as offended by his side's failure to put a try past Wales as he had in the immediate aftermath. "It hasn't fundamentally shaken my belief in what we're doing: if we'd spent the whole game defending and lost four tries to nil, we really would have a problem," he said. "But I was disappointed. It was a Test I felt we threw away. It's done now, but we have to work on ways of finishing things off. Our last warm-up game in Ireland is a big game. We didn't do ourselves justice the last time we went to Dublin [on Grand Slam day last March] so it will be interesting to see the mood of the players when they regather this weekend."
Even more interesting will be the shape of England's midfield against the Irish, who may well field the high-calibre trio of Jonny Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll, all of whom would get a game for the old enemy right now. By the time the teams take the field, Johnson will have named his 30-strong World Cup squad, and while it is sure to include Hape, Tindall, Tuilagi, Riki Flutey and the occasional centre Matt Banahan, the pecking order will be about as certain as the immediate future of the Eurozone.
Almost three and a half years after succeeding Ashton as top dog, Johnson still has no firm idea of his best midfield combination – not because he has too many potential world-beaters, like Graham Henry in New Zealand and Robbie Deans in Australia, but because he has identified and nurtured too few. And for that, he has no one to blame but himself.
Centres of attention: The five contenders
A World Cup winner in Australia eight years ago – he played a blinder in the final – the freshly-minted royal has more garden parties ahead of him than he has Test matches. Injuries have slowed him, and if truth be told, he was never in Jeremy Guscott's class as an attacking outside centre anyway. Unfailingly positive in the dressing room, he works wonders for team morale. But is he really likely to lord it over Conrad Smith or Brian O'Driscoll?
Yes, he's scary. He may even make the New Zealanders think twice, if his colleagues can find a way of freeing him in space. But if the Samoan frightens opponents with the velocity of his tackling, he frightens his own kind when it comes to positioning. The clever No13s – and there will be plenty of them at the World Cup – may leave him all muscled up with no one to hit. No one doubts his potential, but he needs time.
A New Zealander, although one raised in the union code as opposed to the league version like Shontayne Hape. Unlike his countryman and fellow inside centre, he knows what it is to rise to the big occasion, having made a memorable contribution to the Lions' victory over South Africa in Johannesburg two years ago. But that was then. A forlorn, injury-plagued year in French club rugby set him back miles and there has been no hint of a recapturing of form.
"Look around the world," say the England coaches. "Everyone has a big centre these days." How true. Jamie Roberts, Aurelien Rougerie, Sonny Bill Williams, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Jean de Villiers – there aren't many midgets there. But Banahan could not run over Shane Williams (5ft 7in, 12st 8lbs) in a front-on collision at the Millennium last weekend. Still inexperienced as a centre, it's risky to play him against a top-class midfield.
The New Zealander has yet to play for London Irish, his new club. Critics would say he has yet to play – really play – for England. Picked primarily for his defensive qualities, he also has an off-loading game, although this remains a well-kept secret at Test level. In theory, he compensates for his lack of pace by cutting intelligent lines and bringing his technique to bear in contact. In practice last Saturday, he did neither.