Should Johnson take more risks?
November 18, 2008
Johnson's side were outwitted by the Wallabies at Twickenham last weekend © Getty Images
Martin Johnson has stated publicly that a winning England line-up will include players in their mid-20s with dozens of caps. He did not name Danny Cipriani as an example but he might as well have done.
For Cipriani to fit that bill he needed to start getting Tests under his belt pretty sharpish, and to keep right on to the end of the road, which in Johnson's thinking must be the 2011 World Cup.
But there are things even the immortals of sport like Johnson have no control over. Cipriani insisted after the defeat by Australia that the ankle he broke six months ago almost to the day was fine. This was at odds with the time he spent at Twickenham dithering while he fiddled with his right leg, and stamped his foot into the ground to cope with the aches and pains of taking a couple of bangs on the metal plate holding the bones together.
To the layman's eye, the 21-year-old fly-half has not looked 100 per cent fit since his comeback. So was he rushed into England action too quickly, and if he was, what does that tell us about Johnson's outlook?
You were on safe ground if you believed that the average England fan from Fred the sheep farmer in Cumbria to Alf the shopkeeper in Padstow was excited when Johnson became team manager. These are the people too busy with their daily lives to give two figs about how Brian Ashton got shown the door but who pricked up their ears when 'Johnno' strode in. Old beetle-brow was back, and things were right in the world.
And there were moments during the opening win of his Twickenham tenure against the Pacific Islanders, and when England led Australia 14-12, that you imagined thousands of fans at HQ uniting in Rollerball-esque chants of 'Johnno, Johnno, Johnno'. Or maybe 'We love Ferengi, we do', picking up on Austin Healey's nickname for his mate. Then it went wrong and the Wallabies won and suddenly the spotlight is glaring on what Johnson does next. Well, the average honeymoon does last roughly a fortnight…
So let's recall what Ashton did and did not do, and try to learn a lesson on Johnson's behalf from a man who was very highly rated as a coach but found himself criticised by senior players and eased out by his employers.
To the surprise of those who expected brash radicalism, Ashton was often conservative in his selection. The choices of Andy Farrell and Lawrence Dallaglio for the 2007 World Cup and Phil Vickery as captain at the start of 2008 when Matt Stevens was the form bet at tighthead prop were very dodgy. No one in his right mind would have quibbled with picking Cipriani at the outset of the 2008 Six Nations, but Ashton did not do it. He put Cipriani - then fully fit and firing spectacularly for Wasps - on the bench and waited for things to go wrong. Then he selected Cipriani at fullback against Scotland, dropped him over the Mayfair affair and finally gave him the No.10 jersey in the final match (for Ashton too) of the Six Nations.
Bad selections, and lots of them. And surely against Ashton's own instincts. So why did he make them? Many of the new breed of English rugby were crocked and unavailable during his time. Shane Geraghty, Tom Rees, James Haskell, Harry Ellis, Dan Ward-Smith and David Strettle (more than once) were among them. Of the established talent, there was Jonny Wilkinson, injured of course.
During the World Cup even Jason Robinson's body gave up the ghost. Rees, Lewis Moody, Haskell and Geraghty were ripped out of contention early in the 2008 Six Nations.
Though England have vast playing numbers they rarely have a vast number of top players. Ashton (and his predecessor Andy Robinson) constantly had to make do and mend. Let's face it, but for one missed kick by Stirling Mortlock in a Marseille quarter-final Ashton would probably have been gone a year ago.
Which brings us back to Cipriani and to Johnson. England have a new team at a low ebb and the only way to build momentum is to get their No.1 side on the field. If a few are unfit (take James Simpson-Daniel, Mathew Tait, Luke Narraway and Lewis Moody, for example) then could Johnson be tempted to take the opposite path to Ashton and chance his arm with the likes of Cipriani?
Only those inside the England camp know for sure. Maybe only Cipriani knows. Get it wrong against the Springboks and the All Blacks, though, and the hairy-chinned No.10 could be damaged goods at the very start of the four-year cycle Johnson has laid out for him.
The decisions made by and about Danny Cipriani in the next fortnight could reverberate for years.