October 19, 2011
Will England supporters ever see Lewis Moody running out at Twickenham in a red rose jersey again? © Getty Images
It is difficult to conceive of anything that could make England's situation worse as they regroup from a predictable exit in the quarter-finals of the World Cup and look forward to the defence of their Six Nations Championship title that kicks off against Scotland at Twickenham in 15 weeks' time.
The only straw of hope to be clutched at is that whoever is coaching England in the Six Nations will be encouraged to give youth its head - a little like the football team manager Fabio Capello in the wake of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Just as Capello finally acknowledged the blindingly obvious that Frank Lampard and Steve Gerrard could not play in the same side, so we can anticipate an England XV divorced from the depressing notion that Mike Tindall and Lewis Moody must be in it because of their "leadership".
It's not that the L-word is an empty one; far from it, we all know any team is better and stronger when the players can look around a dressing room before kick-off and see one or two, or three or four, leading characters who will set the tone of how the team play and react in adversity.
But when those leaders have nothing else to offer - in other words, their game is so bereft of quality or influence that they are dragging down not only themselves but those around them - then the manager or head coach has to drop them.
It took too long in Tindall's case, and as for Moody, the manager stuck with him to the bitter end of defeat by France. The wonderfully destructive game that a fit Moody brought to England a few years ago had been replaced by a shell of a bloke living on heart alone. You had to feel for Moody, but the back row was on the back foot while he was playing in New Zealand, and Tom Wood in particular has every right to ask Johnson what on earth the rationale was.
South Africa dropped their captain John Smit to the bench for an important pool match against Samoa, and he was in better state than Moody, though both really were in decline in this tournament.
The problem with Tindall was more subtle; as a defensive organiser he still had value to Johnson but it was wrapped up in the manager's belief - backed up by a dull statistical analysis - that the "way to win Test matches" was to score 20 to 25 points and deny the opposition as many.
Once Jonny Wilkinson's boot lost its aim, the policy was doomed and something different was needed. Trouble was, it was Johnson's only policy and the longer it went on the worse it got. You could describe the England set-up as "Leicester lite". Not big and hard enough to bully opponents in the forwards and let Wilkinson's kicking do the rest; not clever, quick and co-ordinated enough in the backs to produce the all-court game that New Zealand are currently playing so brilliantly.
England were marooned at a halfway house tactically - and they stand betwixt and between as to what to do next, too.
Mike Catt - whose former London Irish colleague Brian Smith was never able to put the kind of multi-talented backline he enjoyed with the Exiles on the field with England - is one of those who have argued for Johnson to stay on as manager, as he was "growing into the role".
I can see the simple logic in this, but the fact is that most Test teams have a head coach who does more coaching than Johnson, and a performance director who keeps an eye on the playing style from the youth sides through to the seniors. There has been no sense with Johnson that he has a strategic view for England's various national sides - and that is important when we can hope or expect Joe Lunachbury, George Ford, Owen Farrell, Christian Wade and others from the Under-20s to start being promoted into England squads in the next 12 months.
Someone needs to step forward with that vision, be it a Stuart Lancaster from the existing set-up, or a performance director which is where Sir Clive Woodward's name always crops up. There was always a common or garden good sense in entrusting the senior team to Johnson, but the area I thought he was good in to begin with - identifying talent, weeding out the weak and putting a winning team on the field - was found to be exposed at the World Cup when other teams turned up with their 'A' game, which is of course the great appeal of the big event.
In this limbo period when we have no idea whose England's next coach, performance director or chief executive are going to be, the focus will shift back to the players. How are they feeling after a bruising tournament where plenty of lessons have been dealt out, on and off the field?
The heads of agreement the clubs negotiated with the governing body a few years may have given England some security with the players' release for training and matches but I sense it has left them (the players) in no doubt that the clubs are their principal bosses.
Possibly the most undermining thing to a new England coach would be if this unhappy World Cup has left England's players regarding the national side as a diversion that burdens them with an expectation and a pressure they don't need.
Whether it is Johnson or a new face who is charged with leading the new generation forward to what should in fact be the utterly thrilling prospect of playing the World Cup on home soil in 2015 has got to reinforce the pre-eminent place of the national team - just as they do in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the Tri Nations.
It will not be easy, with some club coaches and executives bound to be in the ears of the players 24 hours a day: "club good, England bad".
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Hugh Godwin is the rugby correspondent for the Independent on Sunday
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