Johnson needs time to make his point
December 1, 2009
Johnson's aim is the 2011 Rugby World Cup © Getty Images
England's autumn internationals at Twickenham descended into an endless round of name-calling and finger-pointing. I can get that playing Sunday morning football in the park, and often do.
It is right to be angry and concerned when the national side is performing badly, but all this recrimination can get depressing. Time, perhaps, with a bit of a break before the Six Nations, to slip on the rose-tinted spectacles.
History tells us that England have never been very good at making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. When they have gone on tour with depleted squads they have tended to be pasted by dozens of points. The supposed managerial guru that was Clive Woodward presided over a 76-0 thrashing in Australia in 1998 when most of the best players were at home.
Brian Ashton had a team beaten 36-0 by South Africa in the 2007 Rugby World Cup in front of 80,000 fans at Stade de France. Can you imagine New Zealand ever getting beaten by 36 points in a Rugby World Cup game? Yet England have reached the final in three out of the last five World Cups, which is two more than the All Blacks. Silk purses, no. But a pig-headed stubbornness when faced with the ultimate challenge? That's where England have scored at World Cups over the likes of New Zealand, France and Wales.
If the 2011 Rugby World Cup is uppermost in the mind of Martin Johnson - and seeing as the RFU have given him a contract up to and including that very tournament, we can assume it is - what hope has he got of another final or even winning it?
While we critics were aghast at the conservative selections and lack of an emerging style, is it possible we are missing the point? Let's leave aside, say, the dropping of Courtney Lawes and Shane Geraghty when they might have been given their head at lock and fly-half to see whether they could handle it, and listen to Johnson for a change rather than lambasting.
He talks about winning Test matches. About keeping games close and finding a way to win them. He often points out that he lost a fair few important matches with England (and Leicester, I guess) as well as winning some big ones. The World Cup is all about immediacy: the theatre, the instant gratification and the potential to create heroes overnight. It is also quite stupid as a means of determining the world's best rugby team. The IRB world rankings give a much better indication of sustained excellence, but they are as prosaic and dull as a World Cup is exciting if potentially unfair. A World Cup can be over in as long as it takes for a dropped goal to hit a post or (as with the All Blacks in 2007) a fly-half to get injured. But it is what it is, as Johnson might say.
You can bet your bottom NZ dollar that Johnson can reel off in his sleep the dates, kick-off times and venues of England's four pool matches in 2011 and the draw thereafter (New Zealand or France are the likely opponents in the quarter-finals). More defeats and poor performances between now and then would be damaging - job-threatening, even - but the England manager's primary thoughts will already be concerned with how to win those seven matches in two years' time, including the big pool contests with Scotland and Argentina.
Will England do it by running opposition teams off their feet? Unlikely. The team of 2001-2 (Will Greenwood, Mike Catt, Austin Healey et al) which scored a lot of tries against opposition including the Tri-Nations sides were also vulnerable to attack. A moderate New Zealand team were edged out 31-28 at Twickenham in November 2002. In the same autumn series, Australia put the wind up England by building a lead which was thrillingly overhauled. When it came to the 2003 World Cup, England had reined in their attack to the extent that they scored just three tries in the big matches against South Africa, Wales, France and Australia. But they won.
It would be no surprise if Johnson has the same blueprint in mind for 2011. A solid set-piece augmented by fast-breaking forwards ferrying the ball over the gainline in the first couple of phases before a combination of large and small backs finish off maybe one or two tries and Jonny Wilkinson's kicking does the rest. If Wilkinson isn't up to it, in his all-round game, another reliable goal-kicker will have to step in. A well-drilled defence which can cope with whichever interpretation is being applied at the breakdown this week is a given.
If that is the wrong blueprint, then the RFU and Rob Andrew had better change things now. If Johnson is to carry on through, do England have the coaches and players to carry out the game plan? Have they got a counter-attacking genius to compare with Jason Robinson? Do they have an all-court front-row like Woodman, Thompson and Vickery, with Jason Leonard in reserve? An outstanding loose forward of the calibre of Richard Hill, capable of excelling in any of the back-row positions? A cussed, hard-mauling, scrummaging lock forward like Johnson himself who can pass the ball in open play rather than die with it?
Yes, it was frustrating to follow England this autumn just gone, and the reason above all was that the questions above never got answered. Six English Lions were injured at the start of the series; Delon Armitage and Nick Easter were out too. Six potential centres were injured: Riki Flutey, Toby Flood, Olly Barkley, Jordan Turner-Hall, Mike Tindall and Dom Waldouck. We are still to find out whether the likes of Armitage, David Wilson and Lawes have it in them to emulate the heroes of 2003. The blueprint is there. We wait to see whether Johnson can get if off the drawing board and on to the pitch.