Wells may pay ultimate England penalty

Johnson must explain performance of his coaches after turgid defeat by the All Blacks
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The Independent Online

If England's rugby over the course of this benighted month had been anywhere near as "brilliant" as the job apparently being done by the Red-Rose coaching team – yes, Martin Johnson did indeed use the B-word to describe the most recent achievements of his back-room quartet, despite the weight of evidence to the contrary – there would have been no need for this week's meeting between the manager and his immediate boss, Rob Andrew. They could both have stayed in the comfort of their own homes, bombarding each other with herograms. "You're wonderful, Martin!" "You're not so bad yourself, Rob!"

In the firing line: Click here or click the image to see our guide to the back-room staff's chances of survival.

Instead, there will be a summit. The two men will call it something else, naturally: it will be described as a review, or a debrief, or a wash-up – an entirely routine discussion that has been in the diary for weeks. This should fool no one. When Andy Robinson entered into a bog-standard review/debrief/ wash-up conversation with Andrew at the same stage of the 2006-07 season, he ended up searching for alternative employment. (Robinson eventually resurfaced in Scotland and now looks a whole lot better than Johnson, but that's another story).

This England coaching set-up is under serious pressure, and while Johnson will undoubtedly stand by the forwards specialist John Wells, the attack strategist Brian Smith, the defence co-ordinator Mike Ford and the set-piece technician Graham Rowntree (who, alone of the four, needs no protection from the manager), he will find himself answering some awkward questions, the first of which might well be: "Martin, why don't England play any rugby?"

While the questioning is unlikely to be as fierce as it would have been had Andrew not been instrumental in bringing Johnson to power in the first place – his fortunes are hitched to Johnson's, which rather confuses the employer-employee relationship – he will still express his disappointment at recent events, which culminated in a whole-hearted yet depressingly impotent 80 minutes of purgatory against the All Blacks three days ago. England were hardly the most exciting side on earth when Andrew was playing at outside-half, but they were a thrill-a-minute merchants compared with the current vintage.

Perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of the situation from Andrew's perspective is that it was he, in his role as Twickenham's director of elite rugby, who negotiated a deal with the Premiership clubs over player release that gave Johnson and his coaches unprecedented amounts of preparation time with the Test squad. Neither Robinson nor his successor, Brian Ashton, was granted anything like the access enjoyed by the present set-up, yet these two somehow produced more with less.

Johnson was strong in defence of his coaches in the aftermath of Saturday's defeat – the eighth successive failure against New Zealand, four of them on this manager's watch. "Considering what they've been through," he said, referring to the torrent of criticism, much of it from recently-retired senior players, that marked the ham-fisted, bone-headed performance against Argentina, "I think they've been magnificent."

But Johnson also acknowledged that his discussion with Andrew would be "ongoing" – which is an interesting choice of word, perhaps suggesting that there will be an awful lot of talking to be done before either man rules out a change of personnel ahead of the 2010 Six Nations Championship, now less than 10 weeks away and starting with the visit of Wales on 6 February. In that tournament, Johnson must also take England to face Robinson and his Scots at Murrayfield, where Ashton's stewardship of the team hit rock-bottom last time out. Defeat there on 13 March, allied to a home loss against either the Welsh or Ireland, would cause a hell of a stink.

Between them, Johnson and Andrew must decide how best to avoid such a calamity. Whatever the former might say, the Wells-Smith-Ford axis could not hope to remain intact should the worst come to the worst in Edinburgh, so might it be best to break it up now and inject some fresh energy? Ford, whose position would have been extremely fragile had Johnson succeeded in luring Shaun Edwards away from Wales 18 months ago, was being linked with a return to rugby league a few days back, but he has since distanced himself from the coaching vacancy with the England national team and appears confident of staying put. Smith, meanwhile, was personally recruited by Johnson and has spent only a year in the job.

Which leaves Wells, drafted into the England set-up in 2006 as a result of the Rugby Football Union's ruthless restructuring of the coaching team after a rough Six Nations campaign. Back then, it was called the "day of the long knives". Will it soon be the former Leicester flanker's turn to feel the blade between his ribs – or, in time-honoured RFU style, between the shoulder blades?

Asked bluntly about his future last week, Wells responded with considerable dignity. He readily acknowledged that he had not played the game at international level: a cheap criticism thrown at him by people who might have done well to remember that some of the world's outstanding coaches – Graham Henry, Jake White and Eddie Jones among them – never won a cap either. He also confessed to some shortcomings in preparation for the Argentina game. When the time came for him to defend his corner, he did so with quiet force.

The last thing Johnson wants is to lose his old club-mate, but this regime was born under a bad star and is suffering for it now. If Wells has to be sacrificed at some point over the next few weeks, who will say the manager did not have it coming?

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