Is Johnson in denial?
March 17, 2010
England manager Martin Johnson casts an eye over a training session at the team's leafy Surrey base © Getty Images
'Johnson wields the axe' screams the headline. I only wish it were true.
He has actually done as little as possible - a tiny bit of Spring pruning instead of the major surgery that is really necessary if he is to learn anything from this Six Nations Championship.
With their title hopes gone this was surely the game for the England manager (and chief selector) to risk some experimentation before the summer tour. Steve Borthwick might still fail to make the starting line-up because of injury but, knowing he was doubtful, this was the perfect opportunity to give him a rest - he has hardly been inspirational either as a leader or as a player - and go for youth.
Instead, as ever, he has been the boring pragmatist. Ben Foden has definitely livened up the England back division when he has come on as a replacement and Delon Armitage's lack of form made that an obvious and easy decision. Likewise with Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood - although I suspect Johnson will have agonised long and hard before sacrificing Wilkinson's kicking reliability.
Mike Tindall for Mathew Tait is totally predictable particularly with the muscular Matthieu Bastareaud at outside centre for France. It is probably also sensible judging by the number of tackles missed in the mid-field so far. And with Ugo Monye injured, although thankfully not as seriously as it appeared at first, Chris Ashton deserves his chance.
But in the forwards there is absolutely no sign that he feels England have a problem. Joe Worsley should never have been picked as an openside but he outplayed James Haskell so he deserves to be on the blindside. Restoring Lewis Moody to openside was an easy choice while Simon Shaw was always going to reclaim his second-row berth as soon as he was fit again so there is not a single surprise anywhere and, more to the point, no sign that Johnson believes England need to totally rethink their approach to the game.
He was always his own man but now he is either stubborn to the point where he listens to nobody or genuinely in denial. England and France both beat Italy but study the two games and you get an insight into the gulf between the two teams. France ran the Italians ragged and scored six tries; England dominated throughout but managed just one.
I will predict now that England will achieve some sort of parity in the tight phases but will be ripped apart in the loose and come late Saturday evening France will be celebrating a routine Grand Chelem. They have been hampered by the injury to Tom Croft who would add real pace to the back-row and why has Courtney Lawes disappeared from the squad? I would have had Lawes starting instead of Borthwick but failing that, might even have been tempted to play him at No. 8.
The worthy Nick Easter is an awkward opponent and does what he does well but he cannot support in wide positions so he severely limits England's attacking ambitions. I suspect Lawes was not even considered because Johnson fears he is too young to face the French and wants to save him up for the future. I see quite a lot of similarities with the young Imanol Harinordoquy - England obviously do not.
During his first two years in charge his opposite number, Marc Lievremont, experimented with everybody and every position. Johnson will never do that but he is very short-sighted if he thinks a ground out win against the French will rescue the season. Here was a match where he could have discovered whether England could play at pace - it might also have been their best chance of victory.
'It isn't fair on the fans,' says Mark Cueto elsewhere on Scrum.com. Every Englishman I have met since the Scotland game seems to agree. It is time the coaching team face up to the fact that England are now the laughing stock of the 2010 Six Nations.
It was great to see the Italians running with confidence and conviction against the French in the latter stages but although Wales might struggle up front I believe their firepower behind will see them through in the first match this weekend in Cardiff. Similarly, the Scottish front-five could pose a few problems for the Irish and there will be a fierce battle for back-row supremacy but everything points to the Irish backs being far too strong for Andy Robinson's men. They need to find some flair - just like England.
It feels like another of those weekends where it is worth staking a few bob on a treble!
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to ESPNscrum.com