England need to have a laugh
Graham Jenkins
March 7, 2010
England manager Martin Johnson is caught smiling, England v France, Six Nations Championship, Twickenham, England, March 15, 2009
England manager Martin Johnson raises a smile during last year's Six Nations © Getty Images

Peter Kay and Ricky Gervais may not strike you as the men to bring a much-needed cutting edge to the England backline but Martin Johnson could find that the comedians hold the key to his side's Six Nations hopes.

England flirted with their first Grand Slam since 2003 after victories over Wales and Italy before their bid for a clean sweep was clinically derailed by Ireland last time out. But even the victories over Wales and Italy failed to raise a smile, such was the manner of those performances.

Johnson and his captain Steve Borthwick have been on the defensive since the start of the Championship, wary of the media pack rounding on them as time runs out before next year's Rugby World Cup. They were not granted any time to enjoy those victories due to the side's failure to live up to expectation and the feeling of unease appears to have filtered through to the players. They celebrated the tries that have been scored with an attitude akin to a two-finger salute to their critics rather than delighting in their own ingenuity.

Somewhere along the way, thanks largely in part to the pressure cooker environment they are working in, it stopped being fun and instead of enjoying the experience the players are now living in fear. Unsurprisingly the message coming from the camp is of a united and a happy squad but you sense there is a heavy dose of spin on those statements. England need to rediscover their love for the game and to that end they need to loosen up a little and remember how to smile. Using our photographic partners' extensive archive you have to go back the best part of a year to find a relaxed and smiling Johnson - it wasn't sepia-toned but might aswell have been which perhaps emphasises the gloom that has descended on his side.

But what better way to dust off the laughing gear than a couple of hours in front of Kay or Gervais - or maybe a bit of Billy Connolly for the older heads in the coaching team. But knowing the preferences of the modern day player perhaps they would prefer a day in front of Modern Warfare if that is what brings a smile to their faces. And whisper it quietly; maybe sink a few beers in the process?

It would have been great to see the squad given an extended period of downtime in the wake of the loss to the Irish in an attempt to freshen up and recharge but I fear there has been no such allowance, although the palatial surroundings of their leafy Surrey training base are hardly taxing on the mind or the body. Smiles were a rarity at Pennyhill Park this past week - or they were when the cameras were present - but at least we saw the football come out again during one session that suggests some free-thinking (what is it about the use of the football? Be it by the rugby or cricket team - you don't see the likes of Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard padding up or spinning a few passes?)

"It would have been great to see the squad given an extended period of downtime in the wake of the loss to the Irish in an attempt to freshen up and re-charge"

A powerful forward effort kept the Irish occupied last time out but despite that dominance in terms of territory and possession, slow ball continued to blight their best intentions and as a result England were still too predictable and so easily contained. Critics set their sights on fly-half Jonny Wilkinson in the build up to that game and he responded with a busy performance but was still found wanting when it came to inspiring a one dimensional backline.

Johnson is unlikely to opt for widespread changes ahead of the clash with Scotland at Murrayfield next weekend partly because such an action would be seen by some as admission that he may have got it wrong up to now. But his hand has been forced somewhat by an injury to fullback Delon Armitage that makes it almost impossible for him not to select Ben Foden in the No.15 shirt. The free-running Northampton flyer has long been held up as the answer to England's ills, always a dangerous game, but given the opportunity, and more importantly the freedom to play his natural game, he could provide the spark needed to ignite England's back division.

As a result, Foden's prolific team-mate Chris Ashton will have to bide his time a little longer before getting a chance to shine on the international stage with Johnson set to retain the safe option of Mark Cueto and Ugo Monye on the wings. You cannot help but feel sympathy for Ashton who could not have done more to merit selection. Johnson is in danger of making himself look silly by maintaining his stance on the youngster - his side continue to struggle to score tries yet he ignores a player who has scored them for fun this season - but as we know Johnson does not do fun.

Wilkinson's industry against Ireland, and the unstinting faith of his manager, will see him retained for the Calcutta Cup clash where he will no doubt partner the lively Danny Care. However, the impotent pairing of Riki Flutey and Mathew Tait in the centre looks vulnerable. It promised so much at the start of the campaign but has failed to flourish as hoped with Flutey in particular guilty of not delivering to the level he did for England and the Lions last year. Another injury, to lock Simon Shaw, means at least one more change and although Louis Deacon is likely to retain his spot having stepped into the breach against Ireland, there will be a temptation to opt for another Saint in the form of Courtney Lawes.

Any more changes than those mentioned would be unexpected but the biggest surprise would be if Johnson entertained the idea that his side were in need of a major overhaul. Now that really would be a reason to smile.

Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.

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