Johnson's men take reality check

After Dublin defeat, England's World Cup hopes look lost in fog of uncertainty

The great guru of gridiron Vince Lombardi once said: "Some people try to find things in this game that don't exist." Not Martin Johnson, who likes his American football – no, he loves it – and as the England rugby manager does a convincing line in Lombardi-isms.

What is the international game to him? "It's about finding ways to win Test matches," he always says. Last night Johnson's team failed to find a way past Ireland and missed out on a Grand Slam, forcing a drastic reconsideration of this young side's readiness for the next challenge – the World Cup.

The emphatic nature of this defeat left an estimated 20,000 English fans in the Irish capital plus the millions more tuning in at home in a fog of uncertainty over whether they could even celebrate the fallback blessing of the return to Twickenham of the Six Nations trophy, for the first time since Johnson's captaincy in the glory, glory year of 2003. There were a couple ofanxiety-laden hours to wait while Wales held the chance of overtaking England on points difference with a big win in Paris.

After a surge of public confidence in the painfully overdue emergence of a renewed force, there is, now, a long way still to go in every sense. This England, Johnson's England, have yet to defeat either New Zealand or South Africa and will almost certainly have to do so to win the World Cup Down Under in October. It is a Slam in global disguise because it requires victory in five big matches:against Argentina and Scotland in the pool (with due respect to the makeweights Georgia and Romania), followed by a quarter-final, semi-final and final to win it. And all, as yesterday, on foreign soil: New Zealand soil, what's worse.

Johnson played through all but one of England's Five/Six Nations campaigns when they went the seven seasons from 1996 to 2002 without a Slam. In that period they won 24 of 31 Championship matches, three titlesand four Triple Crowns. In the seven years post-2003 to 2010 – with Johnson retired in 2004 and becoming the boss as a successor to Clive Woodward, Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton in 2008 – they won 18 and drew one of 35 matches, no titles and no Triple Crowns. A run that has been leaner than Kate Moss on a crash diet.

It appeared English rugby was back on an upward slope. Someone wrote of American football: "[It] doesn't build characters. It gets rid of weak ones" and there had been an element of that as Johnson went asset-stripping in what some saw as the fatally flawed sidelining of talents such as Mathew Tait, Danny Cipriani,Luke Narraway, James Simpson-Daniel and Olly Barkley. The early captain, Steve Borthwick, went too: a usefulness outlived.

Johnson or no Johnson, maybe élan and off-the-cuffness is under attack from the modern ways of GPS systems measuring every metre a playerruns and coaches analysing laptop replays and multiple substitutions. Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Tindall, two survivors of 2003, have referred to the massive change in the physical demand on players, with massive being the operative word. Johnson invested in might in the midfield with Tindall, Shontayne Hape and Matt Banahan. Before Hape's promotion, the choice at inside-centre was Riki Flutey – then he got injured, an affliction throughout the squad that obviated any sound judgement of Johnson when results remained dire in the doldrums of autumn 2009.

The good news for Johnson, as England's pendulum swung just a little more towards winning in the past nine months – home and away victories over Australia, and against Wales, Italy, France and Scotland in this Six Nations – is that the remaining players backed him. And along came Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs, Ben Foden and Chris Ashton, together with an older hand in Tom Croft: all men comfortable with making exciting things happen quickly. When injuries struck this season, Tom Wood and Alex Corbisiero, in particular, stood in impressively.

"Win a team's heart," said Lombardi,"and they'll follow you anywhere, do the impossible for you." You will never hear Johnson promise the impossible. Those hard-eyed All Blacks, Springboks and, yes, the Irish – winners over the English in seven of the past eight meetings – have made England's possibilities look limited.

England's last-day nightmares

2001 The last match was delayed from rampant spring to uncertain autumn by foot and mouth disease. England went to Dublin without the injured Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Phil Vickery. A cute try by Keith Wood and up-and-at-'em defence gave Ireland a 20-14 win, and delirium.

1999 Wales were "hosts" at Wembley but England blew any possible home advantage. Lawrence Dallaglio's decision to press for a try backfired when Wales moved upfield and a slashing try by Scott Gibbs, which was converted by Neil Jenkins, sealed an unforgettable 32-31 victory. Scotland shattered England anew in Edinburgh rain the following year.

1990 The defeat that inspired an era of English domination, including Slams in 1991, '92 and '95. David Sole walked Scotland, who were also chasing the clean sweep, on to the Murrayfield turf and into folklore via a 13-7 win, with a dubious try by Tony Stanger and boneheaded English battering up front.

Hugh Godwin

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz