Johnson on the defensive after his players misplace expected 'progress' report

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Martin Johnson did not say so in as many words, but the defeat by Ireland signalled the low point of his 22-month tenure as England manager. "It's a tough, tough loss," he admitted, uncomfortably aware that his claims of progress, made with such force in recent weeks, must be weighed against the decisive victory achieved by his predecessor, Brian Ashton, the last time the Irish visited Twickenham in 2008. "What we have to do now is keep this horrible feeling inside us for two weeks and then release it at Murrayfield."

The Calcutta Cup match against Scotland on 13 March will be a grim affair – gloriously macabre for those connoisseurs of nervous tension who prefer their sport with a generous pinch of paranoia – and England may well head north without their lock Simon Shaw and their full-back Delon Armitage, suffering from shoulder and rib injuries respectively. Should they lose, they may not win again until the Test with Samoa in November. It will be a serious test of Johnson's mettle, both as a man-manager and a selector, which explains his digging in of the heels at the weekend.

"I'm very loyal to my players, especially when they're taking criticism they don't deserve and people are jumping on bandwagons," he said. "This result is hard to take but it won't dent our confidence. It will have quite the opposite effect. I believe we're ahead of where we were last year in Dublin, when we lost by a point but were always chasing the game. We could easily have won this time. I'm disappointed that we conceded a turnover at the end after shoving them back 25 yards. They tried to collapse our driving maul on three occasions. Without labouring the point – we lost the game, when all's said and done – it was a huge call by the referee not to give us a penalty. It was a penalty well before the maul ended."

Dan Cole, the tighthead prop, was not on the field as that maul was driven upfield, having been substituted a few minutes previously. Yet he felt the frustration every bit as keenly as those who were at the epicentre of the drive and suggested, not unreasonably, that their efforts deserved rather more than a kick in the crown jewels, which is what the award of a scrum feed to the Irish amounted to, more or less.

"In a way, we were the unfortunate victims of our own success in not letting them drag down the maul," said the new front-rower, who cemented his starting place for the Murrayfield match with a top-class performance at the set-piece and something even better in the loose, earning himself a first international try as a consequence. "You'd think there would have been some reward for us, but there wasn't. It's incredibly frustrating.

"It was our plan to play positively, to move them around the field and wear them out before making it pay in the last 20 minutes. A lot of what we tried to do worked for us; in that last quarter, we looked around several times to see them down on their knees. That's when we should have made it count. Instead, we made a defensive mistake and they scored from it."

There was a smile of sorts on Cole's face, even so. A front-row operator with the hard edge common to so many Leicester tight forwards, he can be bracketed alongside Armitage as a true find of the Johnson regime. He even had enough confidence to mount a defence of his fellow prop, the more experienced Tim Payne of Wasps, whose strong scrummaging performance against John Hayes on the day of the Munsterman's 100th cap went some way towards answering his many critics.

"Tim has done brilliantly to stay with it and turn things around, given the amount of stick he's taken," said Cole, whose public dismantling of his red-rose colleague in a Premiership match in January might easily have led to Payne's demotion from the England side. The Scots will scrummage with more far ferocity than the Irish, however, as will the French. The serious examinations are still to come.