Graham Rowntree and Martin Johnson go back decades: they played countless games together at Leicester, built international careers together with England and shared the Lions experience. Now, they are pooling their talents in an effort to restore the national team to something vaguely resembling its former glory, and if Rowntree has anything to do with it they will still be joined at the hip next year as another World Cup cycle approaches its climax.
Asked if he felt Johnson would still be manager come New Zealand 2011, the reply came straight from his courageous front-rower's heart. "That's not a question I can answer," the scrummaging coach said. "But he's a mate, I trust him, he's good with people and I think he's the best man for the job." If it was short, sweet and to the point, he could hardly have said much more.
Even if the rest of the rugby world turns against him, Johnson can safely rely on the support of Rowntree and John Wells, his Welford Road muckers of long standing. But the fact that the hard questions are beginning to be asked openly of his closest associates indicates that the ground is beginning to shift under the feet of the entire back-room staff. Johnson's employers insist he will lead England into the World Cup 15 months from now, but they have never given such assurances in respect of his colleagues. What if Johnson comes under pressure to address the current staffing arrangements and give someone the push? Will he at that moment consider the management game to be worth playing?
Twenty-four hours after the team's dismally one-dimensional performance against the Wallabies in Perth, there was no mistaking the depth of the alarm felt by the coaches. "How do you think we feel?" Rowntree asked. "We need that breakthrough victory – bloody hell we need it – and Christ, we're trying. All of us. We had a chance to do something in this Test, we failed to take that chance and we're gutted. I'm still convinced we're developing a good environment, a good ethos, but the proof's in the pudding, isn't it? We've come here to make progress, but we've drawn one game and lost the other bugger. A defeat doesn't shake our belief, but we're hugely disappointed."
Rowntree tacitly acknowledged that southern hemisphere rugby has come as a rude awakening to some of the England players. "When you look at the pressure we put their front row under in the scrums, it was surprising they were still able to contribute as much as they did around the field," he said. "But these people have just played a full Super 14 season and they're expected to tackle and carry the ball. Our blokes are, too, but I think the intensity, the pace and the physicality we saw from the Wallabies was a bit new for a lot of them."
Tomorrow, the midweek team plays a second match against the Australian Barbarians, this time in Gosford, some 50 miles north of Sydney. The home side will not start with the likes of James O'Connor and Berrick Barnes as they did eight days ago, but the likes of Peter Hynes, Kurtley Beale and, perhaps most significantly, a fully fit Test hooker in the shape of Tatafu Polota-Nau will pose a significant threat once again.
By the time they set off for the third game of the itinerary, England will know if their experienced wing Mark Cueto will be available for the Sydney Test. Cueto was cited for an alleged dangerous tackle on Barnes in Perth and faces a disciplinary panel today.