Johnson fast running out of time and excuses
With key players returning and a nation losing patience, the pressure on England's boss to deliver grows, writes Paul Hayward
Sometimes you can find out most about a manager by provoking him. To poke the beehive of Martin Johnson's indignation is risky but yields insights.
He hates high-risk open rugby, resents people chipping away at his coaching staff and chafes when asked to justify England's failure to win a Six Nations title since he was captain way back in 2003.
Is that acceptable? "Well, it's a fact, isn't it. So you can either get on and work to rectify that or you can sit around saying it's not acceptable," he answers, coldly. "So we'll carry on working at it." But as England stumble out of a numbingly mediocre autumn series into another Six Nations Championship there is much to gain by defining Johnson by his dislikes.
A risky strategy maybe, but we drew him back to the criticism endured by his coaches: Mike Ford (defence), John Wells (forwards) and Brian Smith (attack). Graham Rowntree, the scrummaging specialist, is generally exempted.
Josh Lewsey, a 2003 World Cup winner under Johnson, wrote at the height of England's turmoil: "Just look at what London Irish have done since Brian Smith left and he didn't achieve anything at Test level when he played. Mike Ford didn't win anything, while John Wells never played international rugby. Wells's achievements as a coach are terrible and what justifies these people keeping their jobs?
"Yes, Wells and Ford helped England to reach the World Cup final in 2007 but I would counter that it didn't have anything to do with them because the players took charge and decided how we were going to play. England are the best resourced and biggest union in the world, yet Wales have greater playing depth and coaches."
Lewsey was rebuked by England players and subsequently backed off, but he was not alone. Will Greenwood, his fellow 2003 world champion, said: "I think Johnson will stay and I think that is the right thing to do, but he has to make some seriously hard decisions. He has to look at his captain and he has to look at his coaching staff. My opinion would be that were he to stay with this captain and were he to stay with this coaching staff then it will only be a matter of time before Johnson will get dragged down with them."
With the curtain-raising Twickenham smash-up with Wales only six days away Johnson has reappointed Steve Borthwick as captain but has not ratified the arrangement for the whole of the campaign. England's coaches, though, are on safer ground.
"There's been a lot of speculation about that, a lot of it unfounded, and a lot of it totally wrong," Johnson says. "Talk about defence. We conceded one try against New Zealand [in November]. They scored five the next week against France. Very little credit went to Mike after that game. Look at what John and Graham did with the forwards after the disruption we had in the front row.
"Generally throughout the side the guys did a tremendous job in the circumstances. It's easy to point fingers and say 'Oh, you lost'. Yeah we did, but some of the other scores in the autumn put that into context. Actually you could say: 'With what you had to deal with, the amount of disruption, the amount of injuries, you did a bloody good job in the circumstances'."
But alongside these reasonable self-justifications comes an admission from arguably the greatest captain in any English team sport since Bobby Moore that the red rose mob were mechanical and short on ingenuity in the autumn Tests that followed an encouraging end to last year's Six Nations: "We opened the game at Croke Park last year [Ireland won 14-13], received the ball and went wide. There was space there and we went for it," Johnson says.
But against the three southern hemisphere guests vacant acres were hardly explored at all. "Yes, I agree. What's the expression? Maybe we were over-proscriptive in what we were doing. I don't think Brian is over-proscriptive. Maybe it's the communication between players and staff. We back them to go and play and they have to make their decisions on the field.
"Brian said it himself -- when you're coming in with a new group and a lot of the guys haven't experienced it, it's inevitable you get a bit over-structured. It's something we've talked about a lot this week. Telling the guys, 'look you're there, we trust you to make the decisions on the field'."
This kind of talk can only go so far with Johnson. He mistrusts romanticism and is suspicious of spontaneity. His philosophy was shaped, as it was for the whole of the 2003 golden generation, by the multiple let-downs that preceded the World Cup win in Sydney. Asked about instinctive rugby he suddenly slams the gate down: "Maybe we played a pretty free style and lost some big games." This is Johnson's hell: the side that promotes entertainment above winning.
Borthwick, in whom Johnson sees precious leadership qualities few others manage to spot, says by rote: "There will be times to move the ball, there will be times to keep it tight, there will be times to kick the ball, and we need to feel that within the game. There will be space. We must use that space. There will be times when there's no space in front of us but there will be behind them, and we need to put the ball over the top. The stuff we do as professional rugby players with our clubs week in week out."
"If we'd won the grand slam we wouldn't be having this conversation about style," Johnson protests. But they did not. Their last clean sweep was seven years ago. His England coaching record is six wins from 14 Tests. The big players are flooding back to the fray, thus wiping out excuses. If Greenwood is right, Johnson will crack it in this Six Nations or fall on the spike of loyalty.