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Second best no longer an option for Johnson

The England rugby team seems to have taken forever, especially in the Six Nations, where no English finger has touched the trophy since March 30, 2003 in Dublin.

The digits belonged to Martin Johnson, captain of the Grand Slam and soon-to-be World Cup-winning side, whose job it is to restore English power any time now. At last week's Six Nations launch Johnson answered the same questions in the same setting with an identical sense taking hold that England need to stop talking about progress and get their mitts on some silver.

Since Johnson's heavies overwhelmed Ireland at the old Lansdowne Road, England have finished third, fourth, fourth, third, second, second and third. World leaders in 2003, they have not been the best team in northern Europe since fielding a team who still trips off the tongue: Lewsey; Robinson, Greenwood, Tindall, Cohen; Wilkinson, Dawson; Rowntree, Thompson, Leonard, Johnson, Kay, Hill, Back, Dallaglio.

At the start of this World Cup year Johnson's record as England manager is played 25, won 11, lost 13, drawn 1, yet he seems more perky than at any time since inheriting Brian Ashton's beaten 2007 finalists. "We're starting to get a situation where we know who the England team are and know what the England squad is," explains Johnson. "These are the best players in the country -- and they go and play like it every week."

A corporate target culture is unchanged by the arrival of John Steele as Rugby Football Union chief executive. England's Six Nations campaign continues to be framed like a hospital waiting list. "Given we have three home games and some momentum from the autumn we believe finishing in the top two is realistic," Steele has said. "Third or below would be disappointing given our current position."

This extraordinary fudge lets the England players know a silver medal will be tolerated. Instead the developmental leap made in the autumn ought to have made lifting the pot again in Dublin on March 19 the only game in town. If Steele has already been sucked into Twickenham business speak, Johnson will not be offering his improving side an excuse to fail.

"I think the chief executive calls it 'setting realistic expectations'," he said. "You know, the headline then becomes -- 'Or Else!' That's fine. John knows we desperately want to win every game we play in, so in an ideal world we go to Ireland trying to win a Championship. I said to the players -- how big this game against Wales is doesn't change anything. We still do what we do. That simplifies it -- if you get it right in your head. Expectations and targets: what does that mean?"

Gallic vigour is the main barrier to England's return from the Six Nations wilderness. A third of Johnson's side are new, gifted and young. "It's a different team. A year ago Dan Cole hadn't played a minute of Test match rugby, Chris Ashton hadn't started a Test match, Ben Foden hadn't started a Test match, Ben Youngs hadn't started a Test match, Shontayne [Hape] hadn't played in one. There's been a transition.

"We're all under pressure. That playing record isn't great. But we're starting to get there, with some of the performances we've put in, and starting to understand what Test match rugby is all about. For some of our guys it's the first time down in Cardiff but that's no excuse. They've played the best teams in the world [last autumn]."

Johnson bristles when told England were "bullied' by South Africa in the last of their autumn Tests and is not daunted by the improvisational talents of the Welsh backs. "They can be quick and instinctive. But Chris and Benny Foden and Mark Cueto are also good runners, so are Nick Abendanon and Dave Strettle.

"Our midfield, though some like to criticise it, have also done well, with Mike and Shontayne. And Riki Flutey's back now. We've got Jonny [Wilkinson] back at 10 with Toby [Flood] and Charlie [Hodgson].

"The ones who have experience now need to pass it on in the next two weeks to the other guys on the field. Things like belief and understanding and knowing you're going to win close games -- you don't get them overnight."

Another minor placing ought to wipe out World Cup prospects but four years ago they lost 43-13 to Ireland and 27-18 to Wales to finish third in the Six Nations, sank 36-0 in their opening World Cup game against South Africa but still reached the final. England: more unpredictable than France.


Sunday Indo Sport