Johnson Battered By The Boks

Posted on: 24 November 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

England rugby coach Martin Johnson must act now to avoid another chorus of boos.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t expected to happen and it certainly can’t continue.

England’s World Cup winning captain from 2003 Martin Johnson was sought after as the perfect man to lead the Red Rose into a new era.

The man known by many in the game simply as “Jonno” agreed to take the reigns in April 2008 but didn’t take up his role until after the tour to New Zealand in the summer.

His appointment was meant to signify a new start, a big black line was drawn under the years of underachievement since the 2003 World Cup triumph and even new agreements were put in place between the Guinness Premiership clubs and the Rugby Football Union.

A promising new generation of players including Danny Cipriani, Danny Care, James Haskell and Tom Rees offered a significantly bright future to Johnson, or so we thought.

His first game in charge resulted in a convincing 39-13 win over the Pacific Islanders – a side made up of players thrown together from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga who had just four days to prepare before their Twickenham encounter.

Yet England’s win failed to mask the problems within the squad, tactics and reality of international test rugby.

England were comprehensively beaten 28-14 at the hands of old foes Australia just seven days later and just three games into the new era, the unwelcome sound of boos were already ringing around Twickenham at full-time after a humiliating record home defeat by South Africa on Saturday.

The boss was left to use words like “desolate” in his post-match interviews to describe how the team were feeling in the changing room and probably his own emotional state after watching the damming defeat.

Johnson, who skippered a British Lions series win in South Africa, is quickly finding out that his peerless achievements as a player do not necessarily translate to coaching a successful rugby test team.

His press conference after the game was a strangely muted affair for the coach of a side which had just suffered the worst home defeat in its history. Perhaps Johnson the player and the man are held in just too much esteem to be put on the rack so early into his reign.

"I thought the effort was fantastic, they kept going all the way through the game," said Johnson, who is in his first job as a coach.

"They are learning the brutal and harsh lessons of rugby at this level against a world champion side, and there's no point in me saying that 42-6 doesn't reflect the play. It does, it's the score and we have to live with it."

If Brian Ashton or Andy Robinson had come out with that after such a result, it is fair to suggest they might have been given a rougher ride.

Johnson has decided to go with youth and repeatedly stressed that the players in his elite squad are the best at his disposal.

However that might be the root of the problem for England and Johnson: perhaps the players are just not as good as we think they are, and probably more pointedly, they think they are.

How many of England's starting XV on Saturday would have got near a place in South Africa's side? Or England's 2003 World Cup-winning line-up?

Fair enough, they are a work in progress, but the signs do not look promising at the moment – especially with a match against an in-form All Blacks side, who are looking to clinch a Grand Slam tour, just a few days away.

"It's part of what we're about as a team and what you have to go through as a team to get to where you want to be," says Johnson.

"There's no players with 50 caps coming over the hill as the cavalry – this is our squad and we back them. They all make mistakes at times and they all did some good things."

England did do some good things, but there is no reward on the scoreboard for half-breaks or stolen line-out ball – teams have to make these instances count, and England simply did not.

In contrast, the Springboks came away with something almost every time they got near England's 22. I may not be an international rugby player, coach or television analyst but I know that all teams are told from a very young age to never leave the opposition 22 until you score points – whether it be a penalty, drop goal or try.

Much of the talk after the match was about "learning lessons" and "taking the positives" – an increasingly familiar mantra for the modern-day sportsman. It’s an easy disguise; throw out some clichés to cover over the cracks.

"We want to be better and we want to improve," says captain Steve Borthwick, who is beginning to resemble the valiant Martin Corry in having to front up to the media after another England defeat.

"All we can do is work hard, study the tape of what happened and put it right next week.”

“People will pick holes but we're a collective and we're trying to build towards something special," added flanker James Haskell.

"When you're building towards something, you are going to take knocks and we have to learn from these occasions. I'm excited about being involved in this team."

But Haskell did concede that England fans paying top dollar for their tickets might struggle to see the "special" destination the team was heading towards.

"We hold our hands up – we're not deluding ourselves. We know this wasn't good enough. We won't go back to Pennyhill Park, slap each other on the back and say 'better luck next time'. We'll work as hard as we can to put this right."

The distressing thing for England though, is that many of their problems came from basic errors. The number of handling errors and misplaced passes would have a Colts coach tearing his hair out – surely international players do not need to "learn" the importance of executing basic skills properly.

For a team filled with so many young players, the sound of the boos echoing around Twickenham – something Johnson almost certainly never experienced as a player – may take some time to leave their skulls.

But Johnson has just a matter of days to get his players ready to face the best team in the world. This coaching lark is not all it is cracked up to be and the jury is already out and ready to give the verdict should Jonno’s team fail to find the “special” place soon.

What went wrong on Saturday? Was Johnson’s team selection wrong? Was he tactically naïve? What can be put right before the All Blacks arrive?

Will Johnson turn things around? Should he have had more experience in coaching before being given the England coaching role?

Let us know by leaving a comment in the box below or share your thoughts with other readers in the 50connect forums.

By Mark O'Haire

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