Johnson warns England to cut out the 'if onlys' in Australia duel
Whatever it was the long-suffering Twickenham crowd took from England's second-half performance against the All Blacks last weekend – a degree of satisfaction in the re-emergence of the red-rose pack as a serious force in the international game, perhaps, or a strong impression that Chris Ashton might develop into a wing of the highest class – it cut little ice with the manager. Martin Johnson was as grumpy yesterday as he had been at the end of the summer tour of Australia and New Zealand, and for precisely the same reasons.
"We gave the All Blacks too many shots early on, just as we gave the Wallabies too many shots in the Perth Test back in June," he said. "There are too many 'if onlys' about us. You cannot make the mistakes we made, be as disjointed as we were, and expect to win. Often, it is not about one person making a glaring error. It is usually a case of a small thing leading to something else, which leads to something else again. When that happens, the opposition start making ground they shouldn't be making, we commit too many people to the breakdown, and space appears that should not be there.
"Australia are our opponents this weekend, and they are probably more dangerous than the All Blacks in the attacking sense. Just when you think you have things covered off, they find a way to get round you. If we get our numbers wrong, get too tight, they will hurt us with their variations. You cannot say 'this is what they are going to do', because they always come up with something different.
"The guys have to understand that this is a step up from club rugby – that at this level, you are not able to do as much, as often or as well as you do in the Premiership. It is a fact of life. In a way, Test rugby is simpler, more basic. You have one chance to do your job. You don't get a second bite."
For a man of relatively few words, this was a State of the Union moment, a recognition that at this late point in the World Cup cycle, there was no earthly point in doing anything other than tell it how it was. Johnson needs a victory against the Wallabies this weekend, and needs it badly. One win in six Tests, his current record, is lamentable enough: one win in seven would be the worst run since 2006, and we know what happened to the former manager Andy Robinson after that catalogue of calamities.
Predictably, there has been precious little tinkering. Dylan Hartley, the Northampton hooker, will start in the middle of the front row ahead of Steve Thompson, while the veteran Wasps forward Simon Shaw, fully recovered from a calf injury, replaces Dave Attwood as the bench cover at lock. And that is it.
Firm in his belief that the current lot have the ability to challenge the best of the southern hemisphere nations, the manager accepts that, as things stand, they do not quite possess the know-how. "Look at the way Richie McCaw plays," Johnson said, referring to the All Black captain, whose defensive performance under pressure last Saturday reinforced his reputation as the world's best forward. "He does a lot of clear and obvious things that influence a game, but he also does some very subtle things that impact just as much. That is what we need to learn."
As a player, Johnson was a master of detail. As a manager, he needs someone to influence the dynamic of a game in the same way, but the candidates are few in number. England may out-scrummage the Wallabies on Saturday, but unless they find a way of out-manipulating them, the barren run at Twickenham may well continue.
Keven Mealamu, one of the New Zealanders' most experienced forwards, was last night banned for four weeks for butting Lewis Moody during the Test match at Twickenham. Professor Lorne Crerar, the International Rugby Board's judical officer, upheld a citing against the All Black hooker, who will miss the three remaining matches of his team's Grand Slam programme – against Scotland at Murrayfield this weekend, Ireland and Wales.
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