Sunday 19 January 2020

How did it come to this?

James Lawton

England’s decision to look to the past in Martin Johnson, says James Lawton, will cost dearly in future

For Ireland and France the Six Nations challenge is blessedly straightforward. They simply have to take that extra stride, the new flourish that will carry them beyond their status as joint favourites.

The demand on Wales is also relatively upbeat. They merely have the obligation to prove again that they have, under Warren Gatland, indeed made lasting contact with some of the best of their past.

None of them may think they have it so easy, but then they might spare a thought for England, embattled, profoundly doubted, and required to answer a question that by end of last autumn had become nothing less than a relentless reproach.

The inquiry, after all, runs to the roots of what Martin Johnson and his coaching squad have so far rather haplessly attempted to do. It asks if they have even a vague idea of how it was that they came to win the World Cup in 2003 and reach the final in 2007.

In fact there is another, rather more brutal way of putting it: do the English really remember how to play effective rugby at anything approaching a world-class level?

Inevitably the question was posed again when Johnson announced his Six Nations squad, one conspicuously untouched by any sense of the need for adventure, any acceptance that sometimes it is better to die on your feet than struggle along on your knees. The latter was, surely, England's autumn performance.

The problem wasn't so much the defeats by Australia and New Zealand, which were scarcely unexpected or especially devastating, but the narrow victory over Argentina. It was in the total absence of flair, even a basic rhythm of play. England simply had no instinct for attack. Penetrating the gain-line, displaying an occasional hint of wit, became some distant fantasy.

This was the killing criticism of Johnson's work. This was a moribund team, short of the barest evidence of work that might at some point begin to make progress.

Dismayingly, Johnson seemed mystified at the criticism he received .

He didn't seem to understand that the problem had been so transparent against Argentina. It was the dearth of invention and even a hint of that touch of swagger which announces that it might just be in the air.

By the New Zealand game there was another crushing reality. It was that the return of the fabled Jonny Wilkinson was not only something less than a cure-all -- it might also be an active contributor to the malaise.

Wilkinson remained, of course, a paragon of obduracy and commitment, but his tactical kicking had run down to the point of almost total futility. On one occasion, he had a couple of routine options as England slipped behind the All Blacks.

He could pass the ball out to his three-quarters and perhaps exploit a potential overlap. Or he could attempt a drop-goal, a dull and inappropriate choice if England were to battle back into the game. There was a stunned, even embarrassed Twickenham reaction when he chose the latter course -- and missed.

At that point, the winning kick of Wilkinson in the last moments of the 2003 World Cup final, the drop-goal that brought all the glory, might have occurred on another planet.

It certainly made you wonder all over again about what had happened to English rugby. And come to a familiar conclusion. Hubris was one problem.

England's rugby hierarchy refuses to recognise that the appointment of Johnson was, above all, based on a sporting illiteracy: the one that proposes that a player who produces even the highest order of leadership on the field will necessarily reproduce it as a coach.

In one way, the appointment of Johnson, and the cruel discarding of Brian Ashton, who had, after all, been in charge when England achieved the remarkable redemption of an appearance in the 2007 World Cup final after being destroyed 36-0 in a group game by South Africa, was all of a hubristic piece.

It implied that the world of rugby had somehow congealed around England's success early in the decade. The solution was merely to re-exert England's old certainties, perform a little re-tooling perhaps, and everything would return to its proper shape.

Whether Ashton, widely respected as a coach of genuine attacking invention, was the answer to England's future was of course far from settled. After England had been dismantled at Croke Park in 2007, he conceded that a vast amount of work had still to be done, and it was certainly hard to believe that much of it had been accomplished when England floundered so badly at the start of the World Cup.

Doubts were only compounded when senior players like Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt, much to the benefit of autobiography sales, alleged that Ashton had become a marginalised figure by the end of the France 2007 campaign, with the recovery that carried England, against all the odds, into the final being provided with most momentum by the force of disgruntled player-power.

That's history now, grim history, but unfortunately England remain in a time-warp of diminished hopes. Johnson claims, blithely, that with players like Riki Flutey and Nick Easter back in the trenches, the autumn of deep discontent will soon enough be a bad memory. It is a pretty thought imposed, you have to suspect, on a rather uglier reality.

Part of that reality is that England are deprived of the impetus provided by new players, new horizons. Some groaned with the announcement that another re-processed rugby league man, New Zealander Shontayne Hape, had been called up to the colours. A formidable athlete, no doubt, but Hape is 28 and where are the young bloods like Danny Cipriani and Mathew Tait, who were supposed to rekindle a time when the future was untrammelled by doubt?

Cipriani is of course the player who most graphically illustrates the time of England's lost opportunity. Surely here was a young player to give their game a new dimension, one beyond the reach of the warrior Wilkinson, who even in his prime was not the man you looked to in pursuit of originality.

At 22, Cipriani might yet light a few fires, but his career is currently recorded not in terms of glory but the punctuation of one pratfall or another.

Cipriani swears that celebrity has never been his problem and that soon enough his time will come, a claim that doesn't sit too comfortably with his appointment of a press agent.

Meanwhile, England will attempt to batter their way forward by means of the old imperatives of Martin Johnson: forward power and a mean competitive streak.

For some it seemed like the instant panacea when Twickenham turned to the legend of the field who lacked rudimentary coaching experience.

England know better now, but has the knowledge brought with it the quality some believe is best guaranteed to return the team to proper competitive standards?

We are talking about the elixir of humility, that ability to look at where you are in the world and reach some conclusion about how best to improve your situation.


Both Wales and Ireland accepted the need for outside help if they were to reach new levels of performance, and men like Gatland and Graham Henry performed vital service.

England, of course, took precisely the opposite view. They could operate within their own experience, draw from their unique strengths, and continue to beat the world. They mis-read the dynamics of their triumph in Sydney.

It wasn't an unending lease on success. It was the happy collision of the fanatic Clive Woodward and some players of great ability and power who had been persuaded they could beat the world.

The formula, and the fanaticism, went with Woodward. The players departed with Johnson and Dallaglio and the best of Wilkinson.

In their place is the current impasse of English rugby.

It will surely take more than one Six Nations campaign to break, even though Johnson claims that real progress is happening off the field.

He, of all people, should know that this is the kind of tune you hear whistled in the vicinity of a graveyard. Heaven knows, England will require somewhat more if they are finally to lurch back to life.

The Left Wing: Leinster's weak point, Johann van Graan's future and Doris vs Deegan

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport