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'."

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
newsJohn Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
News
i100
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
News
Bey can do it: Beyoncé re-enacts Rosie the Riveter's pose
newsRosie the Riveter started out as an American wartime poster girl and has become a feminist pin-up. With Beyoncé channeling her look, Gillian Orr tells her story
Life and Style
Donna and Paul Wheatley at their wedding
healthShould emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Voices
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?

Some couples are allowed emergency hospital weddings, others are denied the right. Kate Hilpern reports on the growing case for a compassionate cutting of the red tape
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit