Martin Johnson: Time to deliver

Martin Johnson has the RFU's backing – whatever happens in the autumn Tests. But, argues Chris Hewett, England's head coach must score at least two victories to keep the fans behind him
Click to follow
The Independent Online

No one ever called Martin Johnson a soppy romantic and lived to tell the tale, but it is well nigh impossible to think of a more accomplished honeymooner.

The old Leicester ruffian has been running the England team for more than a year now, during which time he has lost eight matches – five of them embarrassingly – while registering victories over a Pacific Islands mish-mash, an underprepared Argentina, a weak Scotland, a laughably inept France and ... wait for it ... Italy. Yet the Rugby Football Union remains utterly besotted, showering him with rose petals and serving him bubbly in bed. He has the magic touch, for sure.

When his line manager, the RFU's elite director of rugby, Rob Andrew, reiterated this week that Johnson was unsackable ahead of the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, those nodding sagely in agreement included the chairman of the governing body, Martyn Thomas, and the chief executive, Francis Baron. They will still be nodding in a month's time, even if England lose all three of their forthcoming Tests at Twickenham.

Why? Because if Johnson went, he would take Andrew with him and, quite possibly, Thomas too. The men most implicated in the sporting assassination of Brian Ashton 18 months ago have a strong vested interest in presenting their chosen man as a success, even if they have to rewrite history to do it.

So it is that Andrew can talk of "progress" despite the absence of solid evidence for his argument. There have been a couple of brave, eyeballs-out performances in defeat – in Cardiff during last season's Six Nations, and again in Dublin – but the victories have not been much to write home about.

In reality, most legitimate contenders for the Webb Ellis Trophy in a little under two years are so far ahead in terms of team development they can barely be seen without a telescope. "If a country is serious about winning the World Cup," former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones said recently, "team-building is absolutely crucial. 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. Players have to be on the international field to earn them, which takes a while. At this stage of the cycle, I'd have to say the likes of Australia are between 12 and 18 months in front of England."

Johnson's most striking move to date is to turn his back on the troublesome Danny Cipriani, perhaps the most naturally gifted individual available to England in any position. It is devilishly difficult to see a Wallaby coach taking a similar view. If Cipriani is Exhibit A in the case against Johnson's selection policy, Exhibit B is the growing dependency on Leicester players. Three of the Gang of Five running the national team played all their top-class rugby at Welford Road while a fourth, the attack coach Brian Smith, spent time there. One very experienced club strategist said at the time of Johnson's appointment that he feared England would end up "playing like Leicester circa 2000, without the ruthlessness". Thus far, he has been bang on the money.

The manager must know how far behind the clock England have slipped, for he was the central figure in Sir Clive Woodward's supremely organised, perfectly timed march towards ultimate victory in 2003. A direct comparison is instructive.

England have 19 fully fledged international matches left to them before the next global gathering – this month's meetings with Australia, Argentina and New Zealand; a couple of Six Nations Championships; next summer's two-Test trip to Wallaby country; and four fixtures against the big three southern hemisphere nations and Samoa a year from now – plus two or three warm-up games designed to aid the fine tuning. In the scheme of things it is not much, especially when so many positions are still under discussion.

Delon Armitage, currently injured and unavailable for the business of the autumn, is ahead of the field at full-back, but there is no air of certainty about the wings, where the unusually substantial Matt Banahan of Bath may or may not cut the mustard as a destitute man's Jonah Lomu. The centre partnership is currently unfathomable, the half-back roles a subject of intense debate.

Up front, things are a whole lot worse. Johnson may lament the fact that three senior props have gone horizontal on him, but two of those – Phil Vickery and Julian White – are so profoundly senior that they cannot be treated as serious options for New Zealand 2011. Dylan Hartley of Northampton is in a good place to nail the hooking job for the duration, but in the second row, there is a gaping chasm where Steve Borthwick's partner should be. Simon Shaw, another of the current casualties, may be his optimum partner, but the most eye-catching member of this year's Lions pack is not far off superannuation himself.

Only in the back row of the scrum can England be said to be in a rude state of health, what with Tom Croft looking ever more like the Lawrence Dallaglio of his generation and James Haskell, brash and bolshie, preparing to show the world in general and Johnson, in particular, that his move to Paris has been the making of him, rather than his undoing. Once Tom Rees of Wasps gets himself properly fit, the red-rose collective will have a trio to set against the units from New Zealand and France.

How many definite starters, then, for the opening World Cup game? A maximum of four sounds about right. Johnson might claim that the dozen injuries that have forced him to reshape his elite squad have distorted things, but precious few of the current casualties are in the stone-cold certainty category for 2011. Back in the days when Woodward was 19 matches shy of the 2003 competition, selection was rooted in terra firma, to the extent that precisely half the players who would start the final in Sydney were already in place.

Two Six Nations series before departure that number was in double figures, with the likes of Robinson, Cohen, Greenwood, Wilkinson, Thompson, Johnson, Kay, Hill, Back and Dallaglio done and dusted. What was more, England lost only one of those 19 fixtures, a five-point defeat in Paris in which they scored the two tries in the match.

It was not a case of Woodward committing himself early and closing his eyes to alternatives: he indulged in a few experiments around the fringes, fast-tracked a couple of newcomers into the front row and he took a long, leisurely view of the scrum-half joust between Matthew Dawson and Kyran Bracken, and the second-row scrap between Ben Kay and Danny Grewcock, before making his final judgements. Yet throughout the build-up, there was a clear idea of the overall shape of the side. How Johnson would love to be tinkering at the margins rather than building the foundations.

Unfortunately, he is manacled to the cement mixer when he should be preparing to wield the paint brush. A settled side appears much more distant than the next World Cup, and while his employers at the RFU are prepared to give him unlimited amounts of time, anything less than two victories over the next three weeks will leave the Twickenham crowd in much less patient mood.

The fall : Johnno's autumn blues

*15 November 2008, Twickenham: England 14 Australia 28

The first appearance of Johnson's side in front of the home supporters at Twickenham was an uncomfortable experience as the Wallabies took command of the scrummage – a flabbergasting development – and recorded their biggest victory in London for almost a quarter of a century.

*22 November 2008, Twickenham: England 6 South Africa 42

Humiliation writ large. The Springboks scored five tries in inflicting the heaviest Twickenham defeat ever suffered by England.

The manager was heard to mutter: "I could stand here and say the scoreboard didn't reflect the game, but what's the point?"

*29 November 2008, Twickenham: England 6 New Zealand 32

It could have been worse.

Smarting from the shellacking they had suffered seven days previously, the England forwards girded their loins and stayed with the All Blacks for much of the encounter, only to be given the run-around by the brilliant Conrad Smith in the second half.

Johnson's record: Won 5, lost 8.

Comments