Crunch time for Martin Johnson’s England

By Online Editorial

Martin Johnson

After a year in the job, England’s head coach needs to start producing. Good news then, that Jonny’s back and exciting youngsters are staking their claims, says Ralph Ellis.

Every new manager has a honeymoon period. In football these days it lasts for about a month before the phone-in experts are grumbling that you’ve had enough time and really ought to start delivering some results.

In rugby the settling in time probably still lasts for a year – which means Martin Johnson has got to start producing.

Giving the job to England’s World Cup winning captain was always a risk, and it looks even more of a gamble now as his opening hand for the Autumn internationals has been weakened by so many injuries.

But there are signs in his first selection that Johnson, like a good poker player, is making the most of what’s been dealt to him.

For a start he’s dropped the ridiculous notion that plying his trade for a club in France should rule any England player out of appearing for his country. Jonny Wilkinson, in dazzling form for Toulon, is back at fly-half and Steve Thompson’s experience gets him the hooker’s job even though he’s at Brive.

Three more French based players, James Haskell, Andy Goode and Ayoola Erinle, are among the replacements.

But he’s also made some imaginative choices through the rest of a team that while it might lack experience does offer some exciting opportunities for new talent to emerge.

Leicester’s number eight Jordan Crane and Bath’s David Wilson are the two least experienced forwards with just two caps each, the same as Bath’s giant winger Matt Banahan whose 6ft 7ins frame has sparked comparisons with Jonah Lomuh.

Yet whoever he has picked, the most important yardstick by which to measure Johnson’s progress will be the team spirit. As a captain his great quality was his ability to mould a team that would fight for each other.

That 2003 World Cup win was forged on an epic tour earlier in the year when the team defended heroically against both Australia and the All Blacks. They were the games that made them believe they could be a match for anybody.

Johnson himself believes he’s starting to foster that same attitude. “The squad has a better feel to it in terms of spirit,” he said after naming his team yesterday.

“The guys you play Test matches with have to trust each other. That wasn’t there at the start last season, but it developed in the Six Nations and against Argentina, and we’ve been building it again in the last two weeks.”

Australia at Twickenham will be a serious test of that, but Thompson’s selection especially is a key that suggests England might just emerge. And this morning’s price of 2.96 for a home win to launch the series looks very tempting. There will also be value to be had come Saturday morning backing England plus 16.5 points at around 1.8.

Reproduced with permission from © The Sporting Exchange Limited


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