So much for the suit and tie. When Martin Johnson, master of all he surveys as England's new rugby supremo, materialised at Twickenham yesterday, he was dressed in the kind of gear he used to wear in wet-weather training sessions at Leicester, although as far as the players were concerned, he might as well have been clad in a judge's wig and black cap. If anyone steps out of line, mercy will not be an option.
"We've been having the wrong kind of headlines and it can't happen again," he said bluntly, referring to the tawdry shenanigans that scarred England's short visit to New Zealand in June: police accusations of sexual misconduct so lacking in detail that they themselves bordered on the scandalous, followed by the flat refusal of four players to help officers with their inquiries, all topped off with a kiss-and-tell splurge in the tabloids. "This issue has been addressed, in no uncertain terms. It didn't reflect the calibre of person we have in this squad, but it happened and we had to deal with it. The players recognised that we had to get things out in the open and they're keen to make amends."
If Johnson, the great and mighty ogre of English rugby in those faraway World Cup-winning days of 2003, cannot impose some iron discipline on the 32 individuals making up the elite battalion of the red rose army, no one can. Asked whether he had ever been scared of the former captain during the time they spent together as team-mates, Jonny Wilkinson replied: "Scared? It took me six years to pluck up the courage to speak to him." Wilkinson, who underwent shoulder surgery just over three months ago, looked in decent trim on the fourth day of England's pre-season get-together, which was reassuring for two reasons: firstly, because the horrible injury suffered by the playmaking prodigy Danny Cipriani towards the end of last season makes the folk-hero goalkicker an odds-on favourite to start the autumn internationals as first-choice No 10; and secondly, because today's fitness session features an aerobic test so demanding that Mathew Tait, one of precious few successes in New Zealand two months ago, unhesitatingly described it as "sick".
Tait is one of the players most under discussion by Johnson and his Leicester-dominated coaching staff, only one of whom, the defence specialist Mike Ford, did not play for the Tigers. Equally adept at outside centre and full-back, the former Newcastle player will be doing his stuff at Sale this season. England want him to do it at full-back and have made their feelings known to Philippe Saint-André, the director of rugby at Edgeley Park, and under the terms of the new agreement between Twickenham and the Premiership clubs, they can apply a good deal of pressure. It remains to be seen whether Saint-André plays ball.
Similarly, England are keen to see Toby Flood at outside-half rather than inside centre. As Flood has just joined Leicester, it is reasonable to suggest that Johnson will get his own way, but the appearance at Welford Road of the former Springbok stand-off Derrick Hougaard could complicate matters. "We've nominated the position in which we'd like to see each player perform, and there's no point doing that if clubs have different ideas," Johnson said. "But I'm confident the new agreement will put a lot of things in place. I've already visited three-quarters of the clubs in the Premiership and we're building a relationship. Also, we have people like John Wells and Brian Smith in the coaching setup. They've coached in the club environment and bring some empathy and understanding to the situation."
This being a British and Irish Lions season, Johnson will consider it a job well done if England travel to Argentina next June without a good number of leading players. "I've asked the squad what they want from the season, and a lot said they wanted to go to South Africa with the Lions, as they should," said the manager. "It looks like being an open race in selection, so the more successful we are, the better chance they'll stand."Reuse content