Johnson desperate to avoid a mauling

England manager knows a heavy defeat against All Blacks today could leave his coaches on the brink and his own position under even greater scrutiny
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The Independent Online

By and large, Englishmen do not know a fat lot about winning games of rugby against the All Blacks. Only two men in red-rose history – Jason Leonard and a chap by the name of Martin Osborne Johnson – have tasted the glory of it more than once, and of those, only Johnson can claim to be in hat-trick territory.

Should the manager achieve the distinction for a fourth time at Twickenham this afternoon, albeit from a comfy seat in the stand, his satisfaction will be deeper than anything he felt after the victories of 1993, 2002 and 2003.

Johnson understands a hell of a lot about this rough old game, but in the context of today's meeting with the New Zealanders, he is aware of two things in particular: that if his players mess up this weekend – as they did in the opening 40 minutes of their match with Argentina seven days ago – they will find themselves on the painful end of a pasting that could very easily result in sackings among the coaching team; and that a defeat of really serious proportions will see the pressure on his own position intensify dramatically.

When, during yesterday's eve-of-Test discussion, someone mentioned the Rugby Football Union's recent declaration that Johnson would definitely take England to the next World Cup in 2011, the manager responded: "We're all here until the next World Cup." Then, after a brief pause, he added the word "hopefully". If it was some way short of a public admission that the much-criticised specialist coaching quartet of John Wells, Brian Smith, Mike Ford and Graham Rowntree were under some heat, it was certainly an acknowledgement that another abject performance might have ramifications over the coming weeks.

With regards to himself, Johnson admitted the last few days had been "tough". At times, he seemed serenely philosophical in his reaction to the waves of condemnation washing over the England hierarchy. "We live in a world where the criticism is instantaneous," he said. "It's what we have to deal with." At others, he was just a little prickly. Asked about the hard words spoken by some of those who played alongside him in the World Cup-winning side of 2003 – Josh Lewsey and Will Greenwood among them – he replied, caustically: "You don't like to see your mates turn into ... journos."

He believes he has the team on the right track, despite the weight of recent evidence suggesting otherwise. "We know what we're trying to do," he insisted, before taking another potshot at the critics by remarking: "Sometimes you read and hear stuff that is so far off-track, it's funny." But he also accepted that this afternoon's game posed a uniquely serious threat to a team shot through with fragility.

"If you get it wrong against these people, you know you'll take a real beating," he admitted. "You need to be smart, very good technically and extremely physical. You also need to play an 80-minute game and show some resilience, because you expect an All Black team to get around you and score points at some stage during a game."

One glance at the tourists' stellar back division tells us that much. In Daniel Carter, they have the most complete footballing outside-half in the sport; in Sitiveni Sivivatu, they have one of the two or three most devastating finishers; in Mils Muliaina, they possess a dynamic attacking full-back for whom England would happily kill. If some consider Ma'a Nonu to be as one-dimensional as he is powerful in the inside-centre position, it barely matters. Outside him, Conrad Smith has comfortably enough brainpower for the two of them.

Yet the New Zealand pack is far from the most intimidating ever to visit these shores. If it goes without saying that the captain, Richie McCaw, is in a class of his own as a ball-winning flanker, do the likes of the tight forwards Owen Franks and Tom Donnelly really add up to much? Not when compared with Carl Hayman and Ali Williams. And there are those who wonder whether Adam Thomson and Kieran Read are really better back-row options than Jerome Kaino and Rodney So'oialo.

If Lewis Moody, the very epitome of the super-energised gung-ho flanker, can ruffle McCaw's feathers at the tackle area, there may be rich pickings for an England pack capable of achieving parity in most other areas, although the selection of Joe Worsley ahead of the wider-roaming Tom Croft suggests a negative mindset. The promotion of Ayoola Erinle over the head of Shane Geraghty in midfield is certainly narrow-minded. There may come a time this afternoon when Johnson's rejection of what might be called the "footballing option" returns to haunt him.

There again, the manager will be happy to escape with an honourable defeat – that is to say, one of 10 points or less – while any sort of victory will have the old curmudgeon partying well into next week. "How many times have New Zealand lost a Test in the British Isles over the last 50 years?" he asked, before supplying his own answer of "not very often". To be precise, the All Blacks have been beaten three times in 49 matches over the last half century.

England were responsible for all three of those defeats and also managed a draw in 1998. Wales have not found a way past the New Zealanders since 1953; Ireland and Scotland have never managed it at all. It is an astonishing record, rooted in the All Blacks' utter ruthlessness when it comes to playing on the big stage – a ruthlessness that shrivels only when they reach the knock-out stages of a World Cup.

When Johnson was a fixture in the red-rose pack there was something similarly inexorable about England's rugby, albeit short-lived. There is no such relentlessness about his team these days, but a close contest this afternoon would at least give the manager and his coaches another few weeks in which to work out a way of rediscovering it.

Today at Twickenham: How they line up

England

M Cueto (Sale) 15

M Banahan (Bath) 14

D Hipkiss (Leicester) 13

A Erinle (Biarritz) 12

U Monye (Quins) 11

J Wilkinson (Toulon) 10

P Hodgson (L Irish) 9

T Payne (Wasps) 1

D Hartley (N'mpton) 2

D Bell (Bath) 3

S Shaw (Wasps) 4

S Borthwick (Sar, c) 5

J Worsley (Wasps) 6

L Moody (Leicester) 7

J Haskell (Stade Fr) 8

Replacements:

S Thompson, D Wilson, L Deacon, T Croft, D Care, S Geraghty, M Tait

N Zealand

M Muliaina (Chiefs) 15

Z Guildford (H'cns) 14

C Smith (Hurricanes) 13

M Nonu (Hurricanes) 12

S Sivivatu (Chiefs) 11

D Carter (Crusaders) 10

J Cowan (H'landers) 9

T Woodcock (Blues) 1

A Hore (Hurricanes) 2

O Franks (Crusaders) 3

B Thorn (Crusaders) 4

T Donnelly (H'lders) 5

A Thomson (H'ldrs) 6

R McCaw (Cr'ders, c) 7

K Read (Crusaders) 8

Replacements:

C Flynn, A de Malmanche, J Afoa, A Boric, J Kaino, A Ellis, S Donald, T Ellison

Referee J Kaplan (SA)

Venue Twickenham

Kick-off 14.30

TV Sky Sports 2, HD2

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