James Lawton: Grit must be augmented by genius if Johnson's men are to scale heights
England’s midfield is fine at dreadnought defence but returning to the peaks requires more
Monday 28 February 2011
Chris Ashton is no doubt one of the more legitimate reasons for English rugby's belief that under the increasingly avuncular command of Martin Johnson they may have a serious resurrection on their hands.
This is despite the fact that the exuberant flyer twice looked rather foolish in an ultimately satisfying defeat of the Six Nations Grand Slam defenders France.
First, he performed his adolescent and increasingly charmless try celebration when most of the rest of Twickenham awaited a resumption of play at that point where Toby Flood threw a pass so forward even the referee noticed.
Then there was the critically malformed decision to hurl a wing-and-a-prayer pass to Mark Cueto rather than back himself to overwhelm the distinguished but perhaps fading veteran Vincent Clerc when he represented the last barrier to a try that would have ended all French resistance.
This is not meant as a damning indictment of a player who has brought so much momentum – and so many tries – to the still gathering English revival, merely to say that if Johnson's team had removed a major boulder from the onward path, they were still perhaps not strong enough, in their cohesion or their thinking, to pick it up and batter with it the heads of their opponents.
Hopefully such authority will come somewhere along the road to the autumn World Cup in New Zealand but if there was considerable further encouragement to Johnson in this latest victory there was surely also an imperative which has to be tackled before his team go to Dublin, almost certainly in pursuit of their first Grand Slam in eight years.
Johnson must deal with the least uplifting aspect of the hard-fought win over a French team that looked almost tinkered to death by their coach Marc Lièvremont.
It was the lack of smartness and ultimate confidence displayed when Ashton made his errant choice – and whenever the midfield composed of Mike Tindall and Shontayne Hape was required to perform anything more than dreadnought defence. They are fine at that but if you are entertaining serious hopes of returning to the peaks of the game you need something considerably more.
England were paragons of defensive force when they won the World Cup in 2003, a fact which was augmented by the presence of the young and extremely physical Tindall. However, his fellow centre that rainy night in Sydney was not a hulking mirror image like Hape but a player of great imagination and attacking bite, Will Greenwood. He happened to be a reassuring companion in an erratically performing lift before the game – and soon enough you would also have liked to see him, or someone with a similar range of assets, performing his good works out on the field.
Riki Flutey and Bath's Matt Banahan have been championed by Stuart Barnes, one of England's more inventive half-backs of the not too distant past, and on Saturday it was not hard to see his point: England need a sharp injection of increased creativity in that area of the game which so often defines the difference between mere competence and something extra, something that will support decidedly higher aspirations.
Certainly it is a little disquieting to remember that among all their other virtues on home soil the Irish will have at the heart of their attempt to reverse the Johnson revolution the enduring genius – and physicality – of Brian O'Driscoll.
Here, of course, we are discussing the difference between the sublimely complete and the scarcely formed. That may sound harsh, but the reality against the French was that in a most vital area of the game the gap between midfielders who had the potential to significantly initiate, as well as relentlessly spoil, was expressed at times exquisitely by Yannick Jauzion.
Not that it did the French much good. Whatever strengths that had been left unscrambled by Lièvremont's quirky selection lunges paled beside the sense that England were indeed a team of superior force and commitment.
Flood continues to be impressively at the heart of most of their best ideas and beside him Ben Youngs revealed again an ability to put occasional misfirings behind him while maintaining an unshakeable belief that the outcome will be the right one.
Still rising, also, is the graph of full-back Ben Foden's confidence. His ability to see the big picture, and inflict himself upon it with pace and imagination, not only provided the crucial try but also the best chance that England would indeed overcome those midfield limitations which at times could not have been more stark.
Tom Palmer was voted man of the match for another major performance in the second row but the prize could have easily gone to Tom Wood, seven years Palmer's junior but a brilliant, and mature, occupant of the injured captain Lewis Moody's back-row shirt. In such an effort we can best measure the progress of Johnson's work. He inherited a failing alliance of old and crumbling contemptibles and callow youth and now he has something infinitely more substantial and promising.
However, if the work is plainly in progress, it is still vulnerable. The French certainly scratched one area of weakness, while never marshalling a sustained assault, and we can be sure that the Irish will get themselves up for the inflicting of much more serious pressure. It is in Dublin where we will get the best yardstick of England's ability to arrive at the World Cup with properly restored possibilities.
We will be better able there to measure the depth of England's good intentions. They were clinical enough to exploit the frailties of Italy and against the French they carried a decisive edge in conviction. This is fine as far as it goes but clearly it is not yet far enough.
Johnson has won himself a little time and some serious belief in his team's potential to grow. Now he has to perform some significant surgery. England, undoubtedly, are looking better than could have been hoped as recently as last autumn. But it would be negligent to believe that are not still some way from being whole.
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