Martin Johnson was not quite in "I told you so" mood, but when the England manager made an early return to Twickenham yesterday to assess his team's performance in the recently concluded Six Nations Championship, he had the satisfied air of a man who had proved a point or two. "There were flashes of progress even back in the autumn," he said, harking back to a hideous run of defeats at the hands of the southern hemisphere elite, "but people don't want to hear about it when you're losing games. It's easier to make the case now we've won a couple. I'm proud of how far we've come."
Precisely how far that is, he could not say with any certainty. "We're further along the road, but exactly how far, and how much further we have to go, I don't know," he admitted. "But the spirit is building – there's a real feeling in the squad now. We finished second in the Six Nations. Were we really the second best side in the tournament? There were times when it didn't seem like it, but it's where we ended up. It was a close competition, and Ireland won a Grand Slam because they found ways of winning tight games. Would it turn out the same way if the same tournament was played over the next five weeks? Who knows?"
He is hardly in the habit of singling out individuals and setting them apart from the common herd, but he could not resist making special mention of the two flankers who finished as first-choice members of the back-row combination, Tom Croft and Joe Worsley, and also had encouraging things to say about Toby Flood, the outside-half who prospered in the absences of two more celebrated playmakers: the eternally injured Jonny Wilkinson and the spectacularly over-hyped Danny Cipriani. On the latter subject, the manager was rather less than complimentary.
"Nothing has changed as of last week: Danny is in our squad, along with Toby and Andy Goode, and we have no concerns over the processes we've been going through," said Johnson when asked about Cipriani's current place in the batting order. "Am I disappointed in him? No. Well... we always make our selections based around those we think give us the best chance of winning, and he hasn't featured," the manager replied. "We haven't been picking him, either to play or as part of the match-day XXII, although he's been available for selection."
Johnson was far more positive about the role played by Brian Smith, his attack coach, in the months since his recruitment from London Irish. "The attacking side of the game takes far longer to fit into place than any other aspect," the manager said. "That's a given. But again, when you're losing, people don't want to listen. The things Brian has been doing all season are paying dividends now."
The aforementioned Wilkinson, out of rugby since dislocating a kneecap at Gloucester last September, will be missing from the Newcastle line-up once again when Leicester, the Premiership leaders, visit Kingston Park this evening. The World Cup-winning goal-kicker suffered a setback in his training programme last week and now has precious few matches left in which to make a late bid for a place on the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa this summer. Another playmaker who knows what it is to drink from the Webb Ellis Trophy, the Springbok No 10 Butch James, is also off the roster for tonight. Bath, pushing hard for a place in the end-of-season knock-out stage, will face Sale at Edgeley Park with Ryan Davis, recently recovered from a serious knee condition, in the pivot role.
Meanwhile, organisers of the Celtic-based Magners League have agreed, at least in principle, to welcome two Italian teams into the tournament from the start of the 2010-11 season. The quality of Italy's domestic rugby has been in freefall since the mass exodus of Test players to England and France in the middle years of this decade and it badly needs an injection of regular cross-border competition to improve standards.
Manager's choice: Three England successes
Johnson on: Joe Worsley (Wasps)
"People felt we made a strange choice, picking Joe at open-side flanker against Wales. As it turned out, he was one of our players of the tournament."
Johnson on: Tom Croft (Leicester)
"The selection of Tom worked out as well as it could have done, especially with him having a huge responsibility at the line-out in the last two games."
Johnson on: Toby Flood (Leicester)
"He improved game by game and there's a lot of improvement still to come. I thought he played some excellent rugby."