Steep learning curve leads to sound beating

Lack of flexibility in selection and poor judgement are wasting Johnson's quality time
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The Independent Online

Before the start of theautumn collection, which has turned into a season of mellow fruitlessness, Martin Johnson said he didn't give a fig for the world rankings. The manager's aim, of course, was to win every game that England played, and the mathematicians would do the rest. The trouble is, England haven't been winning, and they are now up a gumtree in the middle of the Thames with the Kiwis and the Koalas shaking hands on the shore.

The draw for the 2011 World Cup takes place within a giant rugby ball next to Tower Bridge in London tomorrow, and the winner is... well, it's not England. The top four in the IRB pecking order are separated into their own groups. This is by no means the end of the world for the Red Rose campaign, for the top two in each pool go through to the next stage, but it can make life extremely difficult.

The Rugby Football Union were panicked or politicised into replacing Brian Ashton – he did drag England into the World Cup final against the Boks last year – with Johnson. It was done in the shabbiest manner but with the best intention: the 2003 winner of the Webb Ellis Cup would bestride Twickenham like a man possessed of special powers.

His first decision was spot-on: he didn't go on the tour to New Zealand last June, when England conceded 81 points in two Tests and Rob Andrew was left to pick up the pieces like a punch-drunk boxer still wearing the gloves. Johnno had named Steve Borthwick as captain and it looked rosy a few weeks ago when England, with the self-styled "Black Three" of Paul Sackey, Delon Armitage and Ugo Monye to the fore, put five tries past the Pacific Islanders.

One of them was scored by Nick Kennedy, who was promptly dropped, and another by Danny Cipriani, who provided a couple of chapters for his life story. His trademark has become a charged-down kick leading to a seven-pointer, and after another one against the Boks he too was dropped.

As was Tom Rees, outstanding in a Wasps team going through purgatory yet still lettering their way through England like a stick of rock. Before Johnson's misjudgements – Tom Croft was also harshly dealt with – he was hamstrung by the stupidity of England having to name their elite squad last summer. A few left, a few came in, but it still didn't give him enough flexibility.

Compared to his predecessors, Johnson's initiation was to enjoy the luxury of extra, uninterrupted quality time with his players. At their deluxe training ground in Bagshot, were they concentrating on not conceding penalties? It hasn't looked like it. If it's any consolation to Johnson, last week the All Blacks' coaching team thought he would do a good job.