Johnson's new England pass the test
Pacific Islanders 13 England 39
England's decision to wear red shirts for this ticklish tête-à-tête with the hard-hitting mayhem merchants from the South Seas had nothing to do with their desire to spare a 55,000-strong Twickenham crowd the sight of blood. Had they been thinking along those lines, they would also have taken the field in brown shorts. In fact, the hosts switched from their traditional white to avoid a colour clash with opponents who had only one set of kit to their impoverished name. Unfortunately for the islanders, the generosity pretty much ended there.
Danny Cipriani may have dished out a free try as though he were dispensing complimentary Calcutta Cup tickets in a Mayfair night club, but even at that early point, 15 minutes into the contest, it was evident that England's mood was far from charitable. They had already exposed the islanders' shortcomings in defensive organisation with a score down the right for Paul Sackey; the new full-back Delon Armitage had already stamped some authority on the game with a useful kick-and-gather routine and a cute inside pass for the try; Steve Borthwick was already ruling the roost at the line-out; and Finau Maka, one of the tourists' key forwards, was already limping. All things considered, it was a case of "game over" with more than an hour left on the clock.
If the islanders were quietly aghast at their depressingly impotent performance – "We know we can play better than that," said their Samoan centre, Seilala Mapusua, in a barely audible whisper – there was something rather impressive about England's first effort under Martin Johnson's managership, albeit in a muted kind of way. None of the seeds they planted reached anything like full flower, but there were plenty enough hints and suggestions of possible grandeur to be going on with, especially in the half-back and back-three departments.
They are certainly fast. Armitage, Sackey and Ugo Monye; Cipriani and Danny Care; the two Toms in the back row, Croft and Rees – there are not many slouches amongst that little lot. "This England team is very quick," conceded Mapusua, by some distance the best of a disappointing visiting back division. "I'd say the change is pretty drastic, because none of their players seemed scared of the open spaces."
While Johnson complained that his players "allowed the tempo to go slow on them" during the first half, most of their inadequacies in that period were of the right kind: the result of a youthful sense of enterprise rather than any middle-aged lack of ambition. If Johnson cannot forgive them that, he is even harder of heart now than he was during his playing days.
Care is a classic example of a player who, having heard the phrase about discretion being the better part of valour, occasionally gets the words in the wrong order. In New Zealand during the summer, the scrum-half's rugby was four-fifths brilliant to one-fifth daft. The ratio was better on Saturday, but there were still moments when sensible would have been better than spectacular. He'll learn, though. It is far too early to say whether the Care-Cipriani axis will win England the next World Cup, or even be intact when the tournament happens, but the potential is vast.
Armitage and Monye, even less experienced in Test terms than the two half-backs, were less centrally involved in putting the thoughts of the new attack coach, Brian Smith, into action, and in tighter games than this – against Australia, South Africa and New Zealand over the next three weeks, for example – they will find it more difficult to make an impact. But here, they performed with a confidence that belied their status as debutants. They even managed to escape the "seven bells" treatment they assumed they would receive from the likes of Kameli Ratuvou and Seru Rabeni.
Amusingly, it was Sackey, the old stager amongst the outside backs, who copped the widely anticipated Big One. England were over the hills and far away at 34-13 when, it the last minute of normal time, the Wasps wing found himself haring towards the right corner with the hard-working Fijian flanker Semisi Naevo lining him up for the cover tackle. Naevo took him high, yet Sackey still managed to ground the ball in the millimetre of space available to him. Asked what went through his mind when the hit arrived, he might have said "his forearm", but didn't. Pity.
Both of Sackey's tries were eye-catching affairs, as were the other England five-pointers. Cipriani ran a very long way, very rapidly, to track Monye's exhilarating rampage out of defence, thereby atoning for his donation of a chargedown score to Rabeni; Nick Kennedy, the one newcomer in the starting pack, giraffed his way over to finish a pre-planned move from a line-out; Lee Mears dummied his way to the posts after Armitage had run back a clearance from Ratuvou in precisely the way Ratuvou had been expected to run back clearances from Armitage.
Johnson, one of those characters who needs to be grumpy about something, was far from overwhelmed by the performance up front: Mears, the Bath hooker, played his best game in an England shirt, but some of the close-quarter work was lacking in dynamism and the scrummaging was less than decisive. But his overriding emotion was one of relief. "There was a lot of hoop-la about this being my first game in charge," he said. "I hope that's out of the way now."
Fat chance. Next up are the Wallabies, who remember Johnson as the sternly superior Englishman who relieved them of the World Cup in Sydney – of all places on God's earth – and received the trophy from the hands of their own Prime Minister, who for some unfathomable reason seemed reluctant to hand it over. If the new manager felt he was given too big a role in the build-up to the Pacific Islands game, he ain't seen nothin' yet.
"We'll have to be better than we were today, because Australia have played a lot of rugby since June and they'll be better organised than a team who spent only five days together before coming to Twickenham," Johnson said. "But the mood will be different, I think. All that first-game anxiety will be behind us." Then he thought for a second, before adding: "There again, this will be our first match against a Tri-Nations side. That brings an anxiety of its own."
It's a long road, this management lark. So long, it never ends.
England: D Armitage (London Irish); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), R Flutey (Wasps), U Monye (Harlequins); D Cipriani (Wasps), D Care (Harlequins); A Sheridan (Sale), L Mears (Bath), M Stevens (Bath), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), N Kennedy (London Irish), T Croft (Leicester), T Rees (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: J Haskell (Wasps) for Croft h-t, 53 and for Easter 72; P Vickery (Wasps) for Stevens 59; T Palmer (Wasps) for Kennedy 59; H Ellis (Leicester) for Care 64; M Lipman (Bath) for Rees 64; D Hartley (Northampton) for Mears 83; T Flood (Leicester) for Cipriani 43.
Pacific Islanders: K Ratuvou (Fiji); V Delasau (Fiji), S Rabeni (Fiji), S Mapusua (Samoa), S Tagicakibau (Samoa); P Hola (Tonga), M Rauluni (Fiji, capt); J Va'a (Samoa), A Lutui (Tonga), C Johnston (Samoa), F Levi (Samoa), K Leawere (Fiji), S Naevo (Fiji), N Latu (Tonga), F Maka (Tonga). Replacements: G Stowers (Samoa) for Maka 16; S Bai (Fiji) for Hola 47; E Taione (Tonga) for Rabeni 59; K Pulu (Tonga) for Johnston 59; H T-Pole (Tonga) for Levi 63; S Koto (Fiji) for Lutui 72; Johnston for Va'a 76; S Martens (Tonga) for Rauluni 77.
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).
Try Rabeni; Con Hola; Pens Hola, Bai
HT: 20 - 10
Tries Sackey (2), Cipriani, Kennedy, Mears; Cons Cipriani (4); Pens Cipriani (2)
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