Johnson under pressure to end England's cycle of failure
Wallabies await today and improvement must be made after 'unacceptable' defeat in opening Test
Saturday 19 June 2010
Eleven straight defeats south of the Equator, and counting. Lord, when will it end?
England were champions of the world once upon a time, but they have not beaten anyone, anywhere outside of Europe since Jonathan Peter Wilkinson dropped that goal of his here in 2003, which in rugby terms was back in the late Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs like Martin Johnson roamed the earth. If they lose to Australia today – and there is a very good chance of this happening – they will complete a second full cycle of abject failure.
The Wallabies have won four successive matches on home soil, as have the New Zealanders. For the record, England's inglorious ledger also includes two defeats in South Africa and one in Argentina. As neither Andy Robinson nor Brian Ashton could eke out a result in the southern hemisphere, Johnson's spell as manager is, on the face of it, no more fruitless than his predecessors'. But Robinson travelled light in 2006, when the Australians won two Tests by the aggregate margin of 77-21, while Ashton ventured into Springbok country a year later with the Test equivalent of an Old Rubberduckians 3rd XV. Johnson, on the other hand, has something close to a full-strength squad at his disposal.
He may have led his country to the Webb Ellis Trophy, but the beetle-browed lock of yesteryear is finding that in this neck of the union woods, the well of respect quickly runs dry. He is copping it from all directions right now, not least from Tim Horan, the magnificent Wallaby centre who played in two World Cup-winning sides. Yesterday, Horan described Johnson's selection policy as "confusing", using as exhibit one his decision to play the inexperienced Shontayne Hape ahead of Wilkinson in midfield.
"Hape ... is the player who I think made three tackles in the first Test, missed a crucial one when Quade Cooper put Luke Burgess across for a try and, from memory, ran the ball once," Horan wrote in his newspaper column. "It's fair to say he didn't show a lot, so if you were England coach, wouldn't you pick Wilkinson ahead of a rookie?" Ouch.
It is fair to say that Wilkinson's goal-kicking alone might have made the Wallabies think twice, especially as their front-row combination have all the scrummaging power of an elderly barramundi and seem certain to concede penalties. Yet England were in complete control of the set-piece in Perth a week ago and still concocted a way of flying in the face of rugby orthodoxy by losing the game. Away from the scrum, they were terrible. Even at the back of the scrum they were no great shakes, as Nick Easter, the chastened No8 from Harlequins, openly admitted.
"I had a poor game, probably as poor as I've had in an England shirt, and it was unacceptable," he acknowledged. "Things were a bit better in the second half, but the damage had been done. What went wrong? I don't think we were affected by any communication breakdown, but the decision-making could certainly have been better at times. The intensity was there before the match, but you have to be organised to make the intensity work for you. We don't need people going off in ones and twos, trying to be heroes. There again, I have to put my own house in order before I start handing out advice."
Like others before him this week – Toby Flood, the outside-half, in particular – Easter was entirely honest about England's shortcomings, both individual and collective. Yet many of the issues he and Flood identified were the very opposite of rugby rocket science. Teams at all levels understand how to maximise supremacy at the set-piece and know how to press the opposition with the kick-chase game. As for the defence, who the hell misses 40-plus tackles in a single 80-minute span of Test activity? Strong tackling is meant to be a given at this level, not an optional extra.
England have an awful lot to address in the Olympic Stadium today, and an awful lot to prove, not least to themselves. They will not find it easy: how could they, with players as hot as Will Genia and Matt Giteau restored to the Wallaby starting line-up and flankers as effective as Rocky Elsom and David Pocock flexing their biceps in anticipation of another victory over the national team they will never grow tired of beating?
But address and prove they must, for in a little under a fortnight's time, Johnson revamps his 32-man Elite Player Squad with next year's World Cup in mind. He will be ruthless, because there is no alternative approach available to him. Come the autumn, England will find themselves up against all three southern hemisphere powers at Twickenham, with the Samoans thrown in for good measure. Three defeats from four then will pretty much sink a ship that is leaking badly enough now. "We don't want to go home angry," Easter said. "This is the last Test of the season, it's a long time to the next one and it won't be great if the players spend all summer stewing." Or, even worse, spend it wondering what happened to their Test careers. This game is about more than performance. It is about people fighting for their international futures.
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