Lesson one: England really must try harder

From Martin Johnson's stubborn efforts to the heartening rise of the new France, Chris Hewett assesses what we have learnt from this year's Six Nations
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The Independent Online

Johnson's 'progress' is more myth than reality

Eleven Test matches, give or take the odd meaningless warm-up fixture; three Elite Player Squad announcements; one summer tour; one autumn series; one Six Nations Championship. Like shopping days to Christmas, the countdown to a World Cup starts early. Unfortunately for England, the back-room staff have a well-earned reputation for reacting far too late.

When the manager, Martin Johnson, and his immediate boss, Rob Andrew, sit down tomorrow for a public discussion of the red-rose performance in the Six Nations, they will no doubt trot out their favourite p-word. Progress: as in advancement, betterment, furtherance, headway.

They will wax lyrical on the subject of Ben Foden, the tap-dancing full-back from Northampton, and his club colleague Chris Ashton, who made his international debut on the wrong wing in Paris last weekend. They will celebrate the emergence of Dan Cole at tight-head prop, predict great things for the brilliant Leicester scrum-half Ben Youngs and present yet another Midlander, the highly athletic Courtney Lawes, as their second-row forward for the modern age.

At which point, it might be pertinent to ask why Youngs and Lawes have yet to start a game for their country, why Foden was either ignored or marginalised for seven consecutive matches even though England were crying out for a full-back who was both fit and in form, and why Ashton was not played in the position from which he scores for fun at club level.

It is perfectly reasonable to think that all these newcomers will be on the field in Christchurch, New Zealand, when the tough World Cup opener with Argentina kicks off in a little under 18 months' time, but with the exception of Cole – a serious triumph of fast-tracking by the coaches, despite his problems against an outstanding French front-row on Saturday night – "progress" has not been as quick as it might have been. Certainly, the Australians would have done things differently.

Eddie Jones, who coached a limited Wallaby outfit to the 2003 World Cup final and damned nearly pinched the trophy from under the noses of an infinitely more potent England team, has long argued that experience is the key element in any meaningful push for the summit.

"By my reckoning, a side mounting a genuine challenge for the title will have around 650 caps in its starting line-up, which works out at just over 40 a man," he says. "Those caps have to come from somewhere – that is to say, players have to be on the international field to earn them, which takes a while." As none of the aforementioned quintet will have made it to 20 by the time of the next tournament, Johnson will have to look elsewhere for his know-how.

In this respect, he has wasted a hell of a lot of time messing around with Ugo Monye at full-back, dragging Joe Worsley out of mothballs in the back row, sticking grimly with Tim Payne at loose-head prop and repeatedly falling back on Simon Shaw at lock. Oh yes, almost forgot. Why, in the name of all that is holy, could he not bring himself to shift Jonny Wilkinson down the pecking order before the last game of the Six Nations? Had he acted earlier, Danny Cipriani might not be attaching corks to his favourite hat as we speak.

The truth of the matter is that despite the huge increase in player access enjoyed by Johnson and his staff, progress has been too slow for words. Sisyphus of old made faster strides pushing that boulder of his uphill and might also have been more successful, although it's a tight call.

"We lost two games by a combined total of six points, conceded a bad late try to Ireland and fell a metre short with a match-winning penalty in Scotland," reflected Johnson after the Paris defeat. All true. But by the same yardstick, England might easily have lost both of the games they sneaked, along with the one they drew. Where would that have left Johnson? Still in a job, thanks to the politics of the situation. Which makes you think.



France are on the road to riches

Neurotically conservative as they were in the Saint-Denis rain on Saturday night – how they hate playing England in anything other than the warmth of the noonday sun – Marc Lièvremont's team were far and away the most accomplished team in the Six Nations and were excellent value for the Grand Slam no one thought they would achieve when the tournament began seven weeks ago. One of the major differences between France and England was what might be called the "footballing deficit". England had one, the French didn't. Another was the clarity of Lièvremont's thinking. The coach may have used 70-odd players at Test level since succeeding Bernard Laporte after the 2007 World Cup, but he did his experimenting early.

It will be surprising indeed if 95 per cent of the current squad are not in New Zealand next year, together with the Biarritz prop Fabien Barcella, the Stade Français scrum-half Julien Dupuy, the Perpignan centre Maxime Mermoz and the Toulouse full-back Maxime Medard, all of whom missed this latest tournament for one reason or another: a formidable bank of players indeed. And the mix is right.

The likes of Imanol Harinordoquy, Julien Bonnaire, Lionel Nallet and Yannick Jauzion are 50-cap players; the likes of Morgan Parra, capped as a teenager in 2008, is 21 going on 30, with 17 starts already to his name.

Parra had a poor game against England, but was wonderfully effective against everyone else. He is the symbol of the new France, the decision-making half-back who is benefiting from Lièvremont's embrace of the new while playing in the grand tradition of Gallion and Berbizier. Picked early, he is ripening beautifully – the result of fearless, decisive selection.



How an Englishman revived the Scots

Scotland, statistically the worst of three Celtic nations, were comfortably the best in terms of development. Those hard-bitten types from the Borders and all points north who wondered whether Andy Robinson could conceivably de-Anglicise himself to an acceptable degree are now worshipping at his feet, for the former England coach could and should have won four games out of five.

Everyone likes the look of his back-row unit; indeed, the entire back five of the scrum played some hot stuff. When some or all of the injured strike-runners regain full fitness, a rise up the rankings will be more likely than not.

Neither Wales nor Ireland enjoyed happy tournaments, and it may be that the rugby world has seen the best of both for a while. Some of the Welsh players have an air of the "big fish, small pond" about them: if too many people were too po-faced about Andy Powell's golf-buggy stunt, the incident hinted at a lack of serious commitment in the camp. Ireland are as serious as hell, but many of their most familiar players – John Hayes and Donncha O'Callaghan, maybe Paul O'Connell and David Wallace, too – are heading down the far side of the hill.

The saving grace from the Irish perspective is the discovery of a rare treasure in Jonathan Sexton, the outside-half from Dublin. If he misses too many kicks for comfort, his marksmanship will grow more accurate with time. The thing he has in abundance – the vision thing – cannot be improved by a mechanical regime of rehearsal and repetition. The tries he created against England and Scotland were acts of instinctive brilliance. Come next year in New Zealand, he could be quite something.

Home-grown talent gives Italy hope

Some rugby folk in Italy believe Nick Mallett spends too much time on the golf course and too little time running the rule over his best players as they slog their way around the English and French professional leagues. Others fear the move to put two sides in next season's Magners League will wreck the domestic game for a generation.

Azzurri rugby has its problems, as the Six Nations reflected: too little in the way of home-grown talent, too many third-rate ersatz Italians from overseas, too few moments of majesty to make up for all the dross. Yet they pushed England to the limit, made Ireland sweat for their victory and took out the Scots for the fifth time in 11 tournaments. What was more, two locally based players emerged as genuine talents.

Step forward the back-rower Alessandro Zanni (who, in truth, had been a decent player for some years) and the centre Gonzalo Garcia, both of whom play for Treviso. If Garcia, a bright spark in a back division boasting all the energy of a flat battery, was born in Argentina, his name was easier on the eye than those of Craig Gower and Luke McLean. As Mallett said before the off: "We can't keep depending on Aussies with Italian passports."

Ones to watch: Four who broke through this year

*Ben Foden (England)

The best attacking full-back in England, picked far too late

*Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)

Wayward with the boot, but the face of Ireland's future

*Gonzalo Garcia (italy)

The inside centre shone – a ray of hope in the darkness of Italy's back play

*Morgan Parra (France)

At 21, "le petit general" was at the heart of the French Slam

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