Johnson joins voices calling for change at top of English game

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The Independent Online

The battle for the soul of the England rugby team is far from over, despite the world champions' narrow victory over South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday - their first since the second game of last season's Six Nations Championship. Andy Rob-inson, the head coach with his neck on the line, had to listen to senior figures in the red-rose game, some of whom stood alongside each other on that night of nights in Sydney three years ago, arguing the toss over his future. It must have been the most miserable of experiences.

Martin Johnson, conspicuous by his silence since leading his country to the Webb Ellis Trophy, took it upon himself yesterday to stab Robinson in the front. "There are many reasons England are in the mess they're in, but the buck has to stop with the head coach," he was quoted as saying, a few hours after the weekend result. "He has made some very poor selections and decisions before and during games. Ultimately it's his responsibility. Would it be a knee-jerk reaction to sack Robbo? Let's be honest: we're not talking two defeats here, we're talking seven, so if you ask me if replacing the head coach at this stage, with 10 months to go before the World Cup, would make a difference, my honest answer is 'yes'."

Meanwhile, one of the men who served with Johnson in the World Cup-winning pack, the prop Phil Vickery, placed his considerable weight behind Robinson's continued employment. "I can speak only for myself, but if we're going to go to war, he's the man I'd like to lead us. He is everything I want in a coach - a good fellow, a man with a tremendous amount of knowledge. I watched the Argentina game like everyone else last weekend, and it was hugely disappointing, not just in terms of games lost and all that stuff, but in the manner of it. As far as I'm concerned, it wouldn't have mattered who was in charge of the team. If you go out and make that many mistakes against any side, you are going to struggle."

Vickery, who scored the winning try on Saturday after replacing the injured Andrew Sheridan 10 minutes into the second half, is the clear favourite to replace Martin Corry as captain if Robinson and his fellow selectors decide to make a change at the top. Ironically, he made his name as a Test captain when England won in Argentina in the summer of 2002. Should Corry forfeit the position, it will be as a direct consequence of the defeat by the Pumas 10 days ago.

Sheridan, who was due a scan on his ankle injury today, is extremely doubtful for the second Test with the Springboks this weekend. So too is his Sale colleague, the outside-half Charlie Hodgson, who left the field on a stretcher after damaging his knee in a vain attempt to stop Butch James scoring the first of the tourists' two tries.