These are tough times for Martin Johnson.
England’s collapse at the hands of Australia on Saturday has opened up a fissure that may not close in the near future. The excuse of having 13 of his original 32-man Elite Playing squad did not wash with the media, and Stephen Jones in the Sunday Times called for Ian McGeechan to be made head coach.
The media’s main argument is that if England are under-strength, then at least try out some players who might be of use in the future. Look at Marc Lievremont’s experiment over in France, for example. Since the former France flanker became head coach of Les Bleus, he chose virtually every player who was registered to wear the cockerel on their breast.
And yet, last week, he named a squad of players, of which only four were uncapped. Lievremont and his assistant coach, Didier Retiere, experimented like crazy and France have been appalling because of it.
But the pair have unearthed players of real quality, and since France were blitzed by England in the Six Nations, they went down to New Zealand and beat the All Blacks on their own patch.
Johnson has avoided that route since he took power, and has preferred to tinker with his squad. But the media criticism has mainly missed the point. Johnson has experimented in the past. He has given opportunity to those who are untried. Are our memories so short that we can’t remember the chances he gave subsequent success stories such as Delon Armitage, Riki Flutey and Tom Croft last season?
Johnson simply took the decision last week that England needed experience in their ranks for the match against the Wallabies and it backfired. Why else would he choose Steve Thompson as the meat in the front-row sandwich between David Wilson and Tim Payne?
The former world-cup winning hooker has always had problems with his throw in, but Johnson must have felt that the injury scare to the destructive and demonic Dylan Hartley was enough to hold him back until after half-time.
England led 9-5 at the break, and Australia had to give away eight penalties just to stay in the game at that point. As I have been harping on for over a year now, the England squad are simply too unfit to keep tabs on the best of the southern hemisphere.
Everyone is starting to accept this. England didn’t score a point in the second half. Australia’s pack shunted the Red Rose back around seven metres in the dying stages of Saturday’s Twickenham tussle. Even Will Genia, the shiny new scrum-half with the spirit of George Gregan coursing through his veins, knows this. He said immediately after his team’s 18-9 victory: “We just wanted to work right through the game and we’d have them at the back end.”
His skipper, Rocky Elsom, couldn’t have agreed more, saying that his team were never “really stretched.”
As for leadership, why not make Jonny Wilkinson captain? At the end of the match Wilkinson took the players into a huddle and said some choice words to the team.
Where was Steve Borthwick? If Wilkinson can stay fit, surely there is no one more inspirational, more capable of striking fear into the hearts of opposing sides, and no one more demanding of his own teammates to reach a certain level of performance in every single match?
Perhaps without even realising, he already speaks like a captain. “You put on a white shirt and you go out and fire every shot you’ve got to make sure that when you come off the field you have done everything for your team,” he said after scoring all of England’s points on Saturday.
“But as soon as you put a number 10 on your back the marker for your success is how the team does. You are the directional tool. Finding the answers is what the decision makers are there for. My job was to direct us towards a win and it didn’t happen.”
In contrast, Borthwick looks like a Tonka toy skipper.
If you look at the match stats, England didn’t come off too badly. They made the same number of line breaks, the same number of turnovers, too. They won more line out ball, and lost fewer on their own throw in. What was obvious, however, was that in the second half, they flagged.
But when Hartley came on, and when Courtney Lawes, Paul Hodgson and Ayoola Erinle joined him, at least England played with a bit more nous. These four must start on Saturday, and the benefits of a dynamic and wildly driven back-row pairing of James Haskell and the indomitable Lewis Moody should be considered. It will allow Johnson to take any sort of momentum from the wreckage of Saturday’s defeat.
If England’s injuries are bad, then you should take a look at Argentina’s. If you could name just two Pumas, who would they be? Felipe Contepomi and Juan Martin Hernandez? Yep, both injured. Argentina will field an under-strength team on Saturday. England are 1.37 while the Pumas are 3.8.
Johnson needs to dig deep here and make the right calls. If he doesn’t, that fissure is likely to get a little bigger, and could be ripped open by next weekend when the All Blacks have won at Twickenham, too.
Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. Ã‚Â© The Sporting Exchange Limited
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BIOGRAPHY: Georginio Wijnaldum