Hugh Farrelly: Gobble, gobble -- it's an england turkey shoot
AN Irishman once noted how the English have "a miraculous power of turning wine into water."
It is an observation from a different era and sphere, but one which holds true when applied to their rugby team and their manager Martin Johnson.
Given their playing resources (more than 120,000 senior males compared to 14,500 in Ireland), it should be possible to produce 22 Englishmen capable of matching any side in the world, but, since reaching the 2007 RWC final, the England selectors have gone for more turkeys than Bernard Matthews.
This has been particularly prevalent under Johnson and, last November, the England manager produced a sorry collection of 'gobblers' ranging from the tattooed, treacle-running travesty that is wing 'sensation' Matt Banahan to the now discarded prop Duncan Bell, who spent the games waddling around Twickenham sweating gravy.
As a player and captain, Johnson inspired everyone around him, while his decision-making was beyond reproof -- including his refusal to bow to some jobsworth's irrelevant urgings in the Lansdowne Road red carpet 'stand-off' in 2003.
Yet, as England manager, Johnson has stacked bad call upon bad call -- and top of the pile was the decision to put his faith in Steve Borthwick as captain and then persist with the beleaguered second-row despite all available evidence screaming for change.
By not changing his skipper, Johnson has turned Borthwick into a Captain Scott figure, the sorry leader of an expedition doomed to failure.
The statistics show that since Johnson appointed his captain in October 2008, the Saracens man has led England to eight defeats from 14 outings, with all six victories coming on English soil. Furthermore, those wins were against the Pacific Islands, Italy, Scotland and Argentina (twice), with the only significant triumph coming last March against a French side producing the biggest no-show since Boris Yeltsin's Shannon hangover.
Borthwick is a straight-up, likeable individual, an honest toiler in keeping with the best traditions of English yeomanry but such qualities, while admirable, do not an inspirational leader make.
First up, a captain has to be worth his place in the team and Borthwick, although a reasonable line-out operator, is not a top-class international second-row and was nowhere near selection for the last two Lions tours.
Loyalty is commendable and Johnson recognises in Borthwick some of the qualities he possessed in his own playing career, but this ignores the fact that the England manager operated at a far higher level, in every sense, than his successor.
Jonny Wilkinson is the obvious choice as figurehead for this team, a quality player who has come through his injury nightmare and commands worldwide respect.
Moving on from the captaincy, there is then the issue of Johnson indulging the 'Kiwi for hire' element in the English game with Riki Flutey, Dylan Hartley and the man with the name that immediately makes you think of lazy Somerset afternoons, cider and Morris dancing ... Shontayne Hape.
It has long since been proven that northern hemisphere teams over-reliant on southern hemisphere mercenaries struggle in the Six Nations -- ask Scotland and Wales, who over indulged in the likes of Brendan Laney, Glen Metcalfe, Shane Howarth, Brett Sinkinson and numerous others -- all now happily repatriated on the other side of the planet.
The Six Nations is all about tradition and tribal warfare, you have to believe and be infused by the crest over your left nipple. Thus, it is instructive to reflect on the fact that the Welsh Grand Slam-winning sides of 2005 and 2008 and the Ireland Grand Slam side from last year employed no southern hemisphere 'temps' in their starting XVs.
Finally, there is the question of England's tactics under Johnson. Last November, Wilkinson was unfairly panned for standing too deep when he was operating under the gameplan handed to him by Johnson and England's attack coach -- the Australian and (briefly) Ireland international out-half, Brian Smith.
Johnson was in typically bullish form this week when talking about his side's Six Nations chances, but his capacity for turning wine into water continues unabated.
Or, as the previously quoted Irishman puts it: "The real weakness of England lies in the fact that her ideals are emotional and not intellectual."