Johnson fights his corner as the punches fly

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The Independent Online

A boxing promoter would have licked his lips. It was almost a case of "seconds out" as Martin Johnson and Paul Ackford, former England second-rowers of different vintage (combined height of a double-decker bus, weight to match) exchanged verbal blows in a press briefing on the lamentable Red Rose autumn campaign.

Ackford, who as a player was a more docile dinosaur than Johnson (they played against each other once), was more fired up than Mr Angry of Tunbridge Wells. It was possibly Johnson's use of superlatives to defend England's run of record home defeats that brought Ackford off his stool. Or Ackford's national pride was damaged.

Johnson, formerly Captain Fantastic, now manager of Les Miserables, opened with an unorthodox defence. Steve Borthwick, the maligned captain, was – perm any two from four – "fantastic", "brilliant", "great", "tremendous". Johnson's point was that Borthwick did his job "under incredibly difficult circumstances".

Ackford, a former senior policeman and now a journalist, ducked and it went straight over his head. He asked: "What about your contribution?"

Johnson: "I've created a good environment... that's my job... working as a team."

Where is the improvement? Johnson: "I can't judge from last year because I wasn't there... we haven't scored the points... you're not there seeing what happens... you only see results."

Ackford: "I've heard the same old stuff from Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton... this is the third echo... soft soap... it just isn't good enough."

Johnson: "We are sweating blood, we're living it every day."

Ackford: "It's all excuses. Nobody has said 'I'm sorry'."

Johnson: "Do I have to apologise to you as a former international?"

Ackford: "No, apologise to the public who had to pay to watch that rubbish."

Johnson: "What good is that going to do? I've said we're not good enough. Did you as a player apologise when you got beaten by Australia [in the World Cup final] in 1991?"

Ackford: "Yes."

Johnson: "No you didn't... did you say that when you blew the World Cup?"

Ackford: "I'll get out the cuttings."

Johnson: "If you think it's rubbish, fine, but that's the way we are as a team. What other players can we pick? Have we got better players? What difference is it going to make if I say sorry?"

The exchange, a form of Red Rose cannibalism, highlighted the frustration of Middle England at a decline which saw the team suffer their worst defeats at Twickenham to South Africa and New Zealand, preceded by their second-heaviest to Australia. The aggregate score was 102-26, nine tries to one.

That England find themselves in such distress is mostly their own fault. Rob Andrew, the elite rugby director, pointed out that his red-raw side had a total of 275 caps compared to the All Blacks' 647. "No side has lost the experience we have since the 2007 World Cup," he said.

New Zealand lost a big chunk of frontliners, not to retirement but higher salaries in Europe, especially England.

Robinson and Ashton, Johnson's predecessors, lasted no longer than 18 months. One-year rolling contracts became the fashion but not for Johnson.

"Johnno has a three-year fixed-term contract to the 2011 World Cup," Andrew revealed. "A three-year project has only just started and everyone knows the side needs rebuilding. For long-term planning, player development and building a successful team you need to look at something like Manchester United and Arsenal."

Having described his coaching staff as "fantastic", Johnson then said: "Are we coaching the players well enough to get the job done? What we have asked them to do, they haven't done. The young are not going to be picture perfect. That's what experience gives you.

"We could throw all these guys out and it wouldn't make it any better overnight."

It's not just the players who are learning. Johnno has no experience in his new role.