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Johnson's young guns are running out of time

Youthful side must learn fast with only eight games to go until World Cup

Slick presentation does not always get the job done, as David Cameron will tell you, so Martin Johnson's occasional slip of the tongue in describing the England rugby team's just-completed programme of four autumn internationals as "a tournament" is neither here nor there. But repeating the two defeats out of four in a proper tournament – say, the Six Nations' Championship in the new year or the World Cup in New Zealand in September – would spell second place or worse in one and early elimination from the other. That is Johnson's only concern in what may be his final few months as the national side's manager.

Johnson has made no declaration of intent over whether he will seek to extend his RFU contract beyond its expiry next December. Whatever the case, across the Six Nations and the summer, England have three matches with Wales, two with Ireland and one each against Italy, France and Scotland before they head Down Under.

"Playing against the best is the only way you get better," said Johnson on Thursday, in a review of the autumn. Reasonable enough, but bad news for England who – having risen to fourth in the rankings – will not face any of the top three, the Tri-Nations, until the World Cup quarter-finals at the earliest. That would be the All Blacks on home turf.

So the past month's 10-point defeats to New Zealand and South Africa, and the 35-18 win over Australia, stand as England's line drawn in the Tri-Nations' sand. The more callow players, including the star of the autumn, 21-year-old lock Courtney Lawes, can gain only eight more caps before the World Cup; only so much more experience.

"They have learnt a hell of a lot about the realities of life at this level and what it takes," said Johnson. "In each of those games there were chances to do things that would change the outcome, possibly, but if you don't do them often enough that's not going to happen. Going forward, it's a very competitive squad. The guys are hungry and will look forward to going down to Cardiff for our first game in the Six Nations."

The scrum strained against the Springboks and though the back row of Tom Croft, Lewis Moody and Nick Easter has a broad balance, it lacks the skills of an openside fetcher and passer in the mould of Australia's David Pocock. Of course Johnson may have noted Pocock did little damage against England. So while Croft recuperates from a fractured shoulder it may be Northampton's Tom Wood and not the more classic No 7s, Steffon Armitage or Tom Rees, who has a place in January's England squad to play for.

Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach, has said James Hook may be his man at fly-half if Jamie Roberts and Gavin Henson return at centre. Johnson does not do Gatland-style speculation. Jonny Wilkinson's injury before the autumn matches meant we did not get to find out whether he or Toby Flood was first choice at No 10.

Flood had the starting spot throughout but last weekend was off the field injured when England let a penalty advantage slip by while they trailed 9-6 to South Africa, though Moody the captain was still there. "A game management thing," Johnson called it. "Finding a way to kick a penalty or drop a goal can be just as important as going 95 yards." Wilko may not yet be out of contention.

Chris Ashton, who went 80 yards of the 95 for his try against the Australians and the most thrilling moment of England's autumn, has claims to being the most exciting back in the Premiership, though he has some learning to do in attack and defence.

He came up with the quote of the autumn too after inadvertently nutting Victor Matfield's hip. Staggering to his feet, he was ordered to name the months of the year. "January, February, March..." he said. "Now backwards," said the medic. With a Peter Kay-quality put-down, he scoffed: "I don't know them backwards when I've not been hit on the head."

Twickenham man and woman were smiling again at the counter-attackingapproach of the back three of Ben Foden, Mark Cueto and Ashton. And Johnson had his own laugh after the 26-13 win over Samoa, goading the press for being slow to recognise Shontayne Hape's skills. A skinny six tries in four home matches suggests England's brawny centres, Hape, Mike Tindall and Matt Banahan, could do with some subtler touches, but from whom? Wasps' Dom Waldouck looked classy last year but he and club-mate Riki Flutey, plus Mathew Tait, have been flitting in and out of fitness.

Some of the best Premiership centres and wings are Samoan. "I don't want the [current] players to misconstrue it that they're pencilled in for the World Cup," said Johnson. "They also need their eye on the bigger picture. They need to think, 'I've got to be a world-class player – not just the best player in England, going into a Test match with my fingers crossed'."