Johnson defiant in the face of defeat

England manager sticks to his guns – and under-fire coaching team – after Paris loss
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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson saved some of his toughest, meanest-eyed performances for the French, and he saw no reason to change the habits of a lifetime just because he was decked out in a smart suit and spent his evening in Saint-Denis well out of punching range.

"All that crap about style and ambition makes you laugh," he remarked politely. "What did France do tonight? They knew they had to win the game and that they had to kill the last 10 minutes to do it. It's important that a team is able to play the way they need to play. It's what the good sides do."

Style and ambition are not really Johnson's dap, as they say in the West Country. Winning is his thing, which was why he was in something of a strop as the curtain fell on a strangely gripping Six Nations Championship on Saturday night. England lost, after all. What was more, they finished third in the table, one place lower than in 2009 and a rung down on 2008 – the apparently unacceptable outcome that cost Brian Ashton his job as head coach. Well, there's a thing.

Not that the manager was willing to go too far in addressing the growing sense of public dissatisfaction with the fortunes of the national team. "Public disappointment? Let's talk about the private disappointment," he said. "There's a lot of it inside the camp because we know we're capable of better. We don't inhabit a world where we sit around thinking we're great. We're the ones who live and breathe this."

If Johnson has his way, the existing back-room team will continue to live and breathe it right the way through to next year's World Cup in All Black country, where they must negotiate a horribly tricky pool including Scotland and Argentina, both of whom are well capable of putting one over the red-rose army on any given day. "The coaches have taken a lot of criticism," he said, "but they did a great job ahead of this game.

"The analysis, the preparation ... outstanding. Brian Smith [the attack coach] spent the week telling us how Mathieu Bastareaud would come flying out of the French defensive line, and that if we backed ourselves with ball in hand we could get around him. That's exactly what happened."

He stayed on the front foot, where he played virtually all of his rugby, when the discussion turned to the vexed question of Jonny Wilkinson, who was dropped to the bench for this game yet spent enough time on the field to kick an absolute pearl of a penalty off a wet Stade de France surface – as wide right as wide could be, the best part of 60 metres with the angle, never looked like missing – and might have had the words "match-winning drop goal" written all over him as far as the paranoid French were concerned.

"Some of the stuff said and written about Jonny over the last week ... well, it makes you laugh," Johnson said, returning to his original theme. Old beetle-brows clearly laughs more often than people imagine.

"Look, Toby Flood did a fine job at outside-half. The way he managed the game, managed the whole week of the build-up, was exceptional. But to be able to bring Jonny off the bench knowing he can kick a pressure penalty like that is a great thing for us," he added.

All the same, it might strongly be argued that Flood should have been given his head earlier in the tournament. As for Ben Foden's interminable wait for preferment – well, that bordered on the daft. England's continued commitment to Delon Armitage as their preferred full-back, regardless of the London Irish player's shortage of form and, latterly, fitness, did little to inspire confidence in the selection process. Not that Johnson was having any of it.

"We didn't think Ben was ready last season," he insisted. "If we'd chucked him in earlier, he might not have played the game we saw him play here. I believe we've managed his introduction to international rugby pretty well."

Foden himself was not of that opinion last autumn. It will be more than a little ironic if, at this late stage, he turns out to be one of those who saves this coaching regime's collective skin.

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