End of the Road for Martin Johnson?

And so the post mortem begins… Saturday’s poor performance against the French was just one in a succession of lacklustre showings and it begs the question; Has Martin Johnson taken this England team as far as he can?

It certainly isn’t the first time that Johnson has faced major scrutiny for his coaching ability since taking over the National side but this time it could prove fatal to his hopes of taking this current crop any further. At the start of his reign he was criticised for leading the side with a lack of invention, but in truth he was hampered by a lack of emerging exciting talent.

When he took up the post Danny Cipriani was the emerging talent of British rugby and Johnson gave him every chance to prove his worth both on and off the field but sadly Cipriani’s rather apparent shortcomings as a character and injury problems cut short any plans Johnson may have had to build an energetic and exciting side around him. Johnson initially received criticism for exiling Cipriani from his plans, but in time this has decision has become increasingly justified by a string of indisciplines from the former London Wasps man.

Since Cipriani’s rather fractious character blew Johnson’s first shot at bringing invention and creativity into the back line he has worked hard on enhancing England’s attacking threat and has made several very positive introductions. Under his tenure players such as Courtney Lawes, Tom Croft, James Haskell, Ben Youngs, Ben Foden, Delon Armitage, Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi have come to the fore as International players, which is testament at least to Johnson’s desire to make some attacking team selections.

Such introductions have over the past eighteen months begun to reap rewards and the victory over Australia in last year’s autumn internationals stands out as the prime example. This attacking intent seemed to carry on in to the 6 nations campaign at the start of the year, with the likes of Ashton, Foden and Youngs continuing to develop nicely as International players. Though this campaign ended on a sour note with a disappointingly tame defeat against Ireland, Johnson it seemed was beginning to win over his critics.

How sad it is then that England have carried the form demonstrated in the Ireland match on into their World Cup warm-ups and then the tournament itself. Finally it appeared that Johnson had overcome many of his doubters, finally it appeared that an England side under his tutelage had become capable of balancing attacking intent with defensive stability and a winning mentality but after a poor World Cup  the public have again been left to feel underwhelmed by his ability to take this team forward and utilise the potential at his disposal. England now appear to have regressed by a year to the period before the incredibly exciting victory over the Aussies at Twickenham, and sadly the World Cup has left a feeling that they are back to square one again in their preparations to challenge strongly once again on the World’s biggest stage.

It is in fact arguable that England have regressed further than just back to the pre-autumn international era in 2010. This is because of the worrying off-field actions of the players throughout the tournament which continued recently with Manu Tuilagi’s moment of madness jumping off of a ferry. He was rightly questioned by the authorities for his incredibly stupid actions and sadly it was just one of a long line of on and off-field misdemeanours.

How England go forward from here is very much down to the RFU and the post-World Cup review that will be headed by Rob Andrew. Andrew himself knows full-well that Martin Johnson can be a fantastic leader having played alongside him at International level and then having worked with him throughout his few years as Coach, but the question he must answer is whether Johnson is the right man to take England’s current squad where they need to go. It is not unreasonable to set a target of winning the next World Cup for the current pool of English players but if this is to be the ultimate aim for the next few years then Andrew must come to a decision as to who is best equipped to lead England to this goal.

Martin Johnson has spent his entire period of charge defending his strategy and selection. If this is to be the end for him as England Coach then his time leading the side in this capacity won’t be remembered as fondly as his years of captaincy. He has been fighting a losing battle in trying to emulate his playing achievements and sadly to this point he has come up short. Another consideration for the RFU may well involve releasing Johnson now with a view to reinstalling him further down the line when he may have learnt from his shortcomings and may have achieved highly in charge of a domestic club side such as his beloved Leicester Tigers. The future is very uncertain for Johnson and English rugby, but the RFU can be sure that they have an exciting squad in the making if only they are given the best guidance on offer.

 

 

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Has the penny finally dropped for England @ The RWC?

A few tough weeks are not yet forgotten, but England’s performance against a poor Romania side this morning provided some significant respite. Less unforced errors, fewer moments of silly indiscipline and a more assured and confident day with the ball in hand all added up to a much improved showing from Martin Johnson’s men, and it was about time.

Though the opposition were at times staggeringly poor, it was vital that England treated the game with respect and that they did. From their early decision to slot three nerve-easing points from a penalty to their late attempt at what would have been an incredible breakaway try, England performed with total professionalism and hunger as finally they laid down their marker for the tournament.

In a week where South Africa and Australia silenced their critics it was the perfect time for England to make an impression and this result may not have sent out shockwaves, but it certainly will have made a few teams sit up and take note that England aren’t a team in total disrepair.

No matter how poor their opposition were it was encouraging to see England playing with far greater intent and this was helped dramatically by their improved handling throughout. Ben Youngs dictated the pace of the game very smartly at 9 and got the England backs firing right from the word go and he was well supported by Jonny Wilkinson in the first half and Toby Flood in the second. The combination play between the half-back pairings was neat, tidy and efficient and brought England’s try-scorers into play on a consistent basis.

It seemed that England knew a simplistic approach would suffice if they injected pace into their attacks and the vast majority of their tries came as a result of this approach. England were strong up front and endeavoured to provide Ben Youngs with the quick ball he thrives upon and this enabled the likes of Manu Tuilagi to play a starring role.

Tuilagi revelled in his greater involvement in attack

The young Pacific-Island dynamo was invited to play at his dangerous and brilliant best this morning with the quick service allowing him to take the ball on the shoulder of Wilkinson and Flood right up on the gain-line. For me he was the real star of England’s display and he was demonstrative of everything that England did right in attack today. His support running was fantastic and his hands consistent as he continuously made breaks through Romania’s defensive line and provided the simple hands necessary not just to score himself but to provide assists for others. In England’s previous games they haven’t played with enough confidence and conviction to bring Tuilagi and their other devastating supporting runners like Chris Ashton in from the fringes of the game, but today was a totally different story.

Has the penny finally dropped for England in New Zealand? It seems it has. Simple and strong rugby played at pace usually does for the minnows in tournament play and boy did it work today. Romania’s display was committed as was expected, but their error-strewn handling, shabby set-piece play and their inability to keep pace with England’s relentless execution of the basics meant that they failed to keep touch with their far more able opponents. From now England’s remaining matches in this World Cup will all be against truly world class opposition. Their next opponents Scotland have a huge match against Argentina tomorrow and whatever the result is they will be coming for England’s blood next week.

It is fair to say that England’s more direct and simplistic approach was suited better to today’s task rather than their upcoming encounters, but they would be well advised to take note that uncomplicated rugby does work if executed with confidence. England’s more exciting performers like Youngs, Tuilagi, Ashton and Ben Foden are the key to their potential success at the World Cup, but the way to utilise them most effectively is to get the basics right in the first place.

 

Don’t Disappoint Like Our Footballers

In their World Cup opener this morning England’s rugby team looked worryingly as though they are suffering from a touch of the “Cappello’s”. The symptoms, if you needed reminding of our football team’s terrible performance in South Africa last summer, are a lack of conviction, a seeming lack of desire and the players seeming incapability of producing their bread and butter stock trades amidst the pressure of the World’s premiere competition.

One would hope that these rather nasty symptoms are not allowed to develop further and that Martin Johnson and his back-room staff can act as England’s immune system and bring them back to full health.

 

Today  was shocking, the players seemed inhibited and Argentina had them absolutely rattled. Fortunately for England, Ben Youngs’ introduction sparked life into the backs division as they managed to scrape a narrow four-point victory, but had Argentina capitalised on Jonny Wilkinson’s uncharacteristically abject kicking performance with some better goal-kicking themselves then they would have won. The sad truth is that they probably didn’t deserve to lose and England’s performance wasn’t anything like worthy of winning a huge World Cup match.

Having ripped into a lifeless display from England, here are some positives to take from the game. Number one is that they beat a decent side even when playing at pretty much their worst. Number two is that they didn’t appear to pick up any real injuries. Now I’m struggling… I guess some might argue that it was good to get a bad performance out of the system early on and learn from it in time for the next big test against Scotland in their final group game, but it’s probably best to not have any poor performances at all isn’t it?

Next up for England are Georgia and in theory it should be a walk in the park if they find even the slightest glimmer of their best form. Though the Georgian’s are likely to front up and demonstrate real physicality, the gulf in class between the two sides in attack and in defensive organisation should really tell from start to finish and a comfortable win should be there for the taking.

Following on from the Georgia game is a match up with Romania which should be another easy win despite their impressive showing against the Scots in the ungodly hours of this morning. A theoretically straightforward couple of weeks should ensure then that England comfortably cruise towards qualification for the quarter finals without much cause for further panic or hysteria. However, they must be aware of just how much a major scalp would mean to the minnows of the competition and must make some serious alterations following today’s deficiencies.

In the wake of their limp display today it seems likely that Johnson will switch things around in the quest to play some more fluent rugby and get two confidence boosting victories under their belts before the Scotland clash. It is more than likely that Ben Youngs will come back in after his inspirational return from injury and he may well be partnered by club mate Toby Flood at fly half after Wilkinson failed to impress with his usually metronomic boot. Other changes could see Dylan Hartley, Matt Stevens, Tom Palmer, skipper Lewis Moody and Mark Cueto return to the fold and if they all perform well then who’s to say that they won’t keep a hold of their place when the bigger matches come around?

If Fabio Capello had shifted things around dramatically last summer after a poor opening draw with the USA then perhaps he would have reaped the rewards as Martin Johnson will dearly hope to do in England’s next two fixtures. If the rugby team need inspiration to improve then they should look no further than the likes of Capello and Wayne Rooney who have endured very tough years since their underwhelming performances at the football World Cup. Though rugby is certainly a sport which receives less media spotlight than football it is important that England are inspired by the negative reaction to today’s performance rather than bothered by it otherwise they could end up on the receiving end of a serious barrage of abuse come the end of the tournament.

Big Weekend For British Sport; You Win Some You Lose Some

Isn’t it brilliant when things work out sweetly for you? Last week I salivated over the prospect of a big weekend for British sport and so it turned out to be. Furthermore, I put my journalistic neck on the line and predicted that would David Haye would dominate Audley Harrison, though I would concede that the outcome was fairly obvious. However, I am most proud of my foresight regarding English Rugby and the need for us to play to our strengths and let our youngsters fly. Perhaps a certain Mr.Johnson did indeed stumble upon my blog and take heed from my thoughts as I wished for in my previous post…

Our first big winner of the weekend was the Hayemaker himself. Such hype, such build-up and such hysteria preceded the battle of the British Heavyweights, which indeed ended up being as “one sided as gang rape” as Haye himself so distastefully stated it would be. It took Haye little over seven minutes to stop Harrison in menacing and convincing fashion. The fight started at snails-pace with Haye dancing around the ring and Harrison vigilantly watching on. But when the referee stepped in to tell the fighters to start boxing in the second round Haye set to work and crushed the Olympic Super Heavyweight gold medalist. Haye sent Harrison tumbling to the canvas at the start of round three with a torrent of fierce blows only for Harrison to regain his footing after an eight count. This resistance was short-lived as Harrison was seconds later prevented any further torment by the referee after another flurry of weighty connections. Many would argue that Haye should never have taken the fight with Harrison as there was nothing he would learn from the bout. He may be a hollow-victor in some eyes, but he is a victor nonetheless and clearly Haye was fighting to put some personal ghosts to bed.

Second big winners of the weekend were the England Rugby team. Not only did they win, but they won with a swagger unfamiliar even in the days of Clive Woodward and World Cup glory and broke their scoring and winning margin records against the Aussies. What England and Martin Johnson desperately needed was a slick, stylish and clinical display in order to get the critics off their back and boy did they get it. Such a transformation from the negative and sloppy outfit that lost out to the All Blacks the week before England looked like and proved to be world beaters.

Each and every one of England’s generally young and pretty exciting when given the chance side seemed to enter the fray with an entirely different and necessary mentality and it paid dividends. An unwritten rule of such performances is that the whole team were men of the match, however, one young man shone brighter than all those brave performers around him. Ben Youngs was simply magical. His ability to dictate the game from 9 was sublime and the genius and sheer confidence of his performance was encapsulated in that most glorious of moments when on his own try line he dummied and stepped before releasing the ball which found its way to Ashton on the wing and the rest is history. English rugby fans will take this performance into the remainder of the autumn internationals starting this Saturday against Samoa.

We’ve had the winners and now for the losers. Where else to start other than poor old Audley? The moment he has waited for all his career falls rather fortunately into his hands at the age of 38, it is against a man who he is emotionally tied too and his training camp went as well as ever. So what went wrong? Well no one can possibly explain why his performance was so dour. Why wait an entire career for your moment and only throw a single jab and not one of your famed big left hands. Surely Harrison has not only lost this fight but finally come to the end of such a disappointing career.

Other notable British losers this weekend were Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. Admittedly both drivers needed an awful lot to go their way in order to steal in on the title but neither driver even forced their way into the top three drivers for the season. Hamilton in particular will be left ruing his back to back failures to finish when coming into the home straight of the F1 season, not exactly what is expected of a former champion. The composure shown by German Sebastian Vettel was worthy of that of a man who has now usurped Hamilton as the youngest ever F1 champion.

Final loser of the weekend of British sport was me. I placed five pounds on Haye defeating Harrison in the fifth round in addition to the £14.95 spent on seeing the probable end of Audley Harrison’s career. Seems that I should have staked my money on Haye’s recommendation of a third round knockout…

Another Autumn of Discontent For English Rugby?

English rugby has stuttered and stumbled its way through the years that have elapsed since their awe-inspiring battle through to the final of the 2007 World Cup. However, following the victory against Australia in their own back yard and the narrow, spirited loss to the All Blacks last weekend many have started to believe once more that England can compete come 2011.

On the contrary, I believe that spirited is all that can be said of England’s most recent showing. On the face of it a 26-16 defeat at home to the best side in the world is arguably a decent result but I believe that England blatantly lacked the sharpness, threat and clinical nature required to seriously worry the top nations.

All too often England resorted to the grunt and grind of negative forwards rugby, stumbling and stuttering their way up-field before repeatedly wasting all that effort when within metres of the line. Some would argue that the very fact that we were within striking distance of New Zealand throughout the second half is encouraging but in truth the All Blacks weren’t really on top of their game. Moments of inspiration were there from the likes of Carter, Rokocoko, and Gear as they always are when the Kiwi’s take the field but there did appear to be something lacking on their part. Surely when playing at home against a team performing a little under par a ten point deficit is not good enough, whether it be against the best team in the world or not.

English rugby sports the marvellous record of having won the World Cup in 2003 and having been the beaten finalists in 2007. In addition to this we have the richest rugby governing body in the world in the form of the RFU. These make up the foundations of a nation that should be going into every Test Match expecting victory, so why aren’t we?

Well the jury is out on that issue, but I would argue that currently our greatest strengths are our exciting young backs Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs. Last weekend they weren’t given the necessary freedom until it was too late and New Zealand were cruising to victory. This weekend against arch-rivals Australia we need a new game plan. We simply cannot afford to let the game get away from us before we let our talented youngsters fly and take the fight to the opposition.

Sadly I fear that World Cup Hero turned England Coach Martin Johnson is to blame for a three year period of inconsistent performances. If you happen to have stumbled across this Mr.Johnson, Sir, I implore you to give our exciting players the license to play with the freedom which they exhibit so regularly in domestic Rugby.