It speaks volumes about England’s Six Nations campaign that they lost the last game but are widely regarded as having finished on a high note. Expectations have slipped so low that a third-placed finish is greeted with acceptance and resignation rather than the disgust and horror which would have been the case 5 or 6 years ago.
Examined even slightly objectively, neither this, nor the performances involved should be deemed acceptable. By way of comparison, between 1990 and 2003, England lost more than one game on only one occasion and finished outside the top 2 only once.
It also speaks volumes that, having spent many hours over the past few weekends watching England struggle to produce any sort of threatening, productive rugby on the pitch, the greatest source of irritation has come in the form of the tedious, delusional / dishonest (delete according to preference) nonsense which has been trotted out off the pitch. We can only but speculate what goes on behind the fastidiously guarded closed doors at Pennyhill Park. But if how a team plays is a product of the environment in which they work and the standards they set themselves from day to day then it is hard not to conclude that something is badly amiss. How else to explain the deficit between what the players are capable of and that which they are producing when they play for England?
There are certain key principles which we have always associated with Martin Johnson, or at least the Martin Johnson of folklore. These appear to have been misplaced or misused in recent weeks and months. Here are some suggestions of where he may like to consider a rethink:
Here are some quotes which have emanated from the England camp during the tournament:
“We did some fantastic stuff” – Steve Borthwick using an interesting interpretation of the word fantastic after England’s dire win against Italy.
“There is progress and improvement” – Martin Johnson after the draw with Scotland. Define progress, Martin.
“We’re creating loads and loads of opportunities” – John Wells after the Scotland game. Define an opportunity, John.
“England are on the way back, there is no question of that” – Rob Andrew comes out of hibernation to confirm that his mysterious job description does not extend to actually watching games.
These are 4 of the top men in the English game. And the worrying thing is not that they have made these comments but that they might actually believe them. There has been something of a ‘we know something you don’t’ air to the England camp during this Six Nations. They have been eager, almost too eager, to emphasise that they are building something great, that they are on the verge of becoming world-beaters. The same noises came out of the 2005 Lions camp and that didn’t end too well.
But however positive the feeling is in the camp, to try to convince the public that they have not seen what they thought they had seen, namely 80 minutes of utterly witless drudgery, is just disingenuous and disrespectful. In this modern world of spin it smacks of an attempt to cover their own backs, as though admitting that it was not good enough will raise questions over their respective positions. These comments which seem born from confidence are in fact due to a lack of confidence.
Rugby supporters are not stupid. They will have far more respect and tolerance for someone who admits his failings, accepts that it is not good enough and vows to improve. Not only does this show the strength of character of a team willing to face up to their shortcomings, it is also a statement of intent that they will continue to strive for improvements and will accept nothing but the best.
The talk of progress grates because it sends the message that the squad are satisfied with the level of progress. The selections made against France were an admission that the strategy for the tournament had failed rendering any claims that the performance represented a continuation of a previous upward curve well wide of the mark. At the current snail-like rate we still have some disappointing times ahead of us.
Martin Johnson has grown more and more agitated with the media and public questioning of his team. But Martin, there is no witch-hunt. Supporters are merely concerned that, if you believe half of the comments you have made about progress and improvement and being on the right track, then we cannot be too optimistic that things are going to improve. You have been given a far easier ride than almost anyone else in any country in the world would have been. We all want you to succeed. Please repay our support by not insulting our intelligence.
Loyalty is a virtue. We lament the lack of it in modern sport with more and more players adopting countries or flitting between clubs. Martin Johnson was a one club man, as loyal to the cause as anybody could be. But there is such a thing as misplaced loyalty. By sticking by his maligned captain and coaching staff, he is doing himself and his team damage.
He is a stubborn old soul and the suggestions to this effect which have been coming from all sides have only served to make him dig his heels in. Steve Borthwick would be in nobody else’s England team; the kicking game is a disaster, the pack is as ineffectual as any England pack in memory. Someone, somewhere is not doing their job. The buck ultimately stops with Johnson and if he is not prepared to make tough, unpalatable decisions then the barbs will be redirected solely at him.
I watched England v France from the 2003 Six Nations on ESPN Classics the other day. England beat their closest rivals 25-17, comprehensively outplaying them and never looking like losing. Will Greenwood promptly came off the pitch and announced it was the most disappointing second half he had ever experienced in an England shirt.
Why? Because they fell so far short of the levels of which they were capable. That victory opened the way for an England Grand Slam but still they were not satisfied because it was not the performance of a world-beating team. That side was considerably further down the line than the current outfit but they should be setting their sights on the same destination – the summit, where they can beat anyone, anywhere, any time.
Given the number of players, resources, finances and support structure at their disposal, anything other than a top two finish in the 6 Nations after a genuine tilt at the title should be considered failure. This is no disrespect to their rivals but England do have an embarrassment of riches. Whether it is the England coaching structure, the academies or the turgid nature of the Guinness Premiership which is to blame, it must be remedied. And please no more erroneous talk of progress where there is so little. Successful teams aspire to be the best rather than clutching at straws upon which they can pin hopes for a tomorrow which often never comes.
Martin Johnson never claimed to buy into his media image as a colossus of the game. When he was appointed, our joy was based around Johnno the myth rather than the man. But that myth was built upon legitimate foundations – as a player he was honest, uncompromising and accepted nothing but the very best. That is the Martin Johnson which England need now.
By Stuart Peel