Plenty for Johnson to tackle
October 12, 2010
Martin Johnson must preside over a change in thinking from England © Getty Images
A coincidence in the allocation of press seats in Northampton's grandstand meant I found myself next to Martin Johnson recently, watching the Saints' Aviva Premiership match against Bath. With ESPN's cameras broadcasting the game live it wasn't long before a flurry of texts arrived on my phone - the main themes being 'stop brown-nosing the England manager' and 'can't you cheer up a bit?'.
I pleaded not guilty on both counts; in the second case, it's not easy keeping a straight face when you spot a pitchside camera trained on your companion for the evening. The Northampton supporters in front of us were laughing like hyenas.
Needless to say, I neither sought nor gleaned many state secrets from 'Johnno'. We shared a very occasional chuckle at this or that refereeing decision, or some off-topic subject, and I maintained a dignified silence when Chris Ashton and Lewis Moody hobbled off and Ben Foden hobbled but stayed on. There was nothing to be gained from digging England's figurehead in the ribs and whining 'ooh, whatcha gonna do about that, then?'
It reminded me of what must be one of the toughest parts of being a national coach in any sport: the lack of time with your players. For weeks and sometimes months on end, Johnson is kept at bay - confined to the odd phone call or popping his head round the door at a club training session or watching a match. England may be useless or wonderful or a work in progress - take your pick - but whatever Johnson spotted to work on following the most recent Tests in Australia in June, has been left to gather dust for four months apart from a few days at a Twickenham training camp in August.
When England do reconvene in the last week of October to prepare for the opening match of the autumn, against New Zealand, I would bet the contest for possession after the tackle will be high on the to-do list. If I heard a coach in the Premiership mention the way the All Blacks took the Tri-Nations by storm once during the first few weeks of the season, I heard it a thousand times. But what Richie McCaw and friends are capable of under the refereeing directives may be chalk and cheese to what English clubs and England are able to do.
A huge problem for England in recent years has been clearing the tackle area quickly enough to generate quality possession. Go for who you like at fly-half - and I'd stick to what I said last season in a preference for Toby Flood over Jonny Wilkinson - but they will be hamstrung by turgidly slow ball. One of Johnson's assistants told me last season they measured success or failure in this area by a three-second time limit. Go beyond three seconds to get the ball clear and you've failed. England were not succeeding consistently.
So the current refereeing directives should help in solving this problem for England, but they help everyone else too, so the question is who benefits the most? Johnson spoke about this during the August camp.
"They've started refereeing what's in the law book," he said. "So if you get it right you've got a far better chance of winning your ball at the ruck more quickly. So you want to keep hold of the ball a lot more. In laymen's terms, you don't want to kick it back, you want to keep it.
"Possession is good to have again. You saw the progression a little bit during the Six Nations, though it was difficult to know what to expect, referee-wise. At the end, the way France defended, people said we played with flair - well, there were reasons why. You'll be able to hold on to the ball, go through phases, win it quickly and fatigue defences; get ball on the front foot with room to go forward."
But what about that extra leeway for the attacking side, I asked him, does that benefit all teams equally? "You've got to do something with the ball, you've got to do something with it," Johnson said. "You've got to run with it, haven't you? So…um… All anyone wants is consistency with what's happening. If you get it wrong, the Pococks and McCaws of this world will still be able to compete."
Coaches' comments are often dismissed or simply pushed to one side in the hunt for a handy soundbite or the following day's headline. Always with Johnson there is truth in his answers, however much it may seem that he is being cautious. What little we can glean of the work he has been tending to in those long months away from his team suggests a new willingness to play more off the cuff, doubtless because possession should be easier to come by. But there must be a worry that the All Blacks will arrive at Twickenham ready to run England off their feet, when the hosts have barely got out of the crouching position.
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