James Lawton: England rugby may soon have to face hard truth that Johnson is not fit to rule

Wilkinson has to try to mask the reality that England have become an object of contempt
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The Independent Online

Six years after achieving one of the most stunning moments in the history of English sport Jonny Wilkinson might have been wise to take his sainted, miraculously resurrected bones for a flying visit to Lourdes before coming home for today's assignment against Australia at Twickenham.

Certainly you have to suspect England need a touch of the supernatural along with desperately assembled new blood and sinew if Wilkinson is to pull off a requirement which was unimaginable on that dank but glorious night in Sydney when he delivered the World Cup.

This is because Wilkinson has to do rather more than hold together a team potentially devastated by both injury and the seeping suspicion that their legendary leader Martin Johnson may, after 13 abortive attempts, perhaps never stumble upon the sweet secrets of coaching alchemy that provide convincing evidence of a way forward.

He has to try to mask the reality that has made the rugby nation which supplied the winners and runners-up in the last two World Cups an object of contempt in most of a world which has so better understood the demands of the age of professionalism.

The indictment is that England have for some time now – well, six years if we want to be as precise as Lawrence Dallaglio was in these pages this week – been throwing away a brilliantly achieved advantage.

It is hard to know which has been the most grievous handicap, hubris, unfettered arrogance, or simply an inability to learn the lesson that has always been best absorbed by the long-term winners in any sport.

Sir Nick Faldo, the most successful of all British golfers, put it most succinctly when he declared, "A lot of people don't understand that getting to be the best in the world is not the hardest thing. The toughest bit is remaining so. It takes incredible effort – and a bit of intelligence helps too."

You can take your choice from the forlorn list of reasons why England have so haplessly squandered the platform built, sometimes eccentrically but always with fanatic commitment, by Sir Clive Woodward, but the truth remains the same: English international rugby has been brought so low that the autumn Tests that start today have become not so much measuring sticks as blunt, self-harming instruments.

We are told by Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby, that redemption is indeed in the air, that the young blood will reinvigorate a team that has become remote from the most serious end of world competition.

It is the prettiest of thoughts but it is hard not to believe it is also an extremely perilous one, even against Australians who, despite being ranked third in the world, have lost six of their last seven matches. They have, of course, lost those games to southern hemisphere opposition who share a culture that insists that whatever happens on the fields of club rugby, whatever profits are turned, the fortunes of the national team will always be the best indicator of the game's health in any particular country.

Here, such reality has been cast aside in a scramble for advantage and profit that has stretched far beyond the mere vying interests of club and nation and the consequent financial accommodation of the clubs by the Rugby Union. Certainly it is hard to place within the boundaries of the same national game the achievement that came in Australia in 2003 and the worst of the disfigurements that have followed: the shabby manner of former coach Brian Ashton's dismissal – something from the grubbiest corners of back-corridor conspiracy – and the barely cleaned sink of the Harlequins cheating scandal.

There is a lot to redeem at Twickenham today, including the absolute failure to properly handle both the nature and the talent of England's most exciting talent, Danny Cipriani, and there is a certain poignancy in the fact that Wilkinson above all, and after so long, is the man seen as most likely to achieve at least some of the task.

There were times on the approach to his supreme moment in the Telstra Stadium when the argument could be made that Wilko was the problem rather than the solution. He agonised over his performances to the point of neurosis. His ability to shape the team's effort eroded to the point where Woodward was required to send in the veteran Mike Catt to find a way past the Welsh in the quarter-final in Brisbane. But what Woodward refused to do was cast aside the man and the character he believed could still deliver the ultimate victory. That Woodward's successor Johnson is so far removed from such certainty is only partly his own fault. The ground beneath his feet has, after all, moved at a pace which has been no less than alarming.

Clearly, English rugby has applied physical pressure on its players which they would have been hard pressed to survive even in those days when their size and speed and power did not make the accumulation of serious injury so inevitable. Now, with the demands of club and nation so onerous, with a growing sense that a perceived gold rush has taken on the potential of nightmare, England's role as hosts of the 2015 World Cup is beginning to look like a chalice with some rather murky contents indeed.

So what does English rugby do? Most pressingly, it takes the kind of hard look at itself which it has avoided more or less continuously since the glory of 2003 first began to dwindle. It accepts that players of high talent are a limited resource. It says that dangerous times require outstanding leadership and a willingness to face unpleasant facts. It looks again at why nothing means so much in New Zealand, for the most obvious example, as an All Black team provided with every aid to performance and the best available coaching.

Until that happens it can live only on the memory of how it was when England was placed in the charge of a man like Woodward who knew what he was doing and had the freedom and nerve to do it. Meanwhile, the unfortunate truth is that even Jonny Wilkinson will not last forever.

Two fitting tributes to Sir Alf: a statue, and Capello's England

Let's hope there was more than nostalgia at work at Wembley yesterday when a statue of Sir Alf Ramsey was unveiled by arguably the most promising of his successors, Fabio Capello.

The encouragement is that some of the men who stood alongside Capello when he performed the ceremony – and said it was a time of "big emotion" – had a strong suspicion they may well have been doing more than the recalling of days that will never be reproduced.

Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Geoff Hurst and George Cohen – three of the winning team of 1966 who were deeply motivated by Ramsey's assurance, "Gentlemen, you will win the World Cup", have all voiced their belief that Capello has come closest to producing the kind of discipline and self-belief which was such a key part of their own triumph.

"The thing I find most encouraging," says Charlton, "is that whenever I see Capello speaking the players are obviously listening. He is providing the kind of leadership which Alf gave us from the moment he took over the job. Ramsey and Capello operate in times that are so completely different in so many ways, but, yes, I do see a very strong link and power of leadership is the thing they have most in common."

That leadership was often as fierce as the emotion displayed by Capello recently when he was angered by the sight of a player using his mobile phone at a time he considered inappropriate.

It was shown forcibly enough by Ramsey when he happened to sit next to Charlton at the end of a long tour of South America. "Well, Bobby," asked the manager, "how did you enjoy the last few weeks?"

Charlton could scarcely have been more enthusiastic. He said he loved the sense of a developing team and the seriousness of the training. He thought things were coming together quite splendidly. However, he had to be honest. Towards the end he had come to miss his wife and daughters.

"Oh, really," said Ramsey. "If I knew that was your attitude, I probably wouldn't have brought you along."

No one ever said the only man to lead England to World Cup victory did not have an obsessive streak. We can only speculate on quite how ferociously he would have reacted to a mobile phone.

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