Johnno to face Six Nations head-on
January 11, 2010
Is there light at the end of the tunnel for England manager Martin Johnson? © Getty Images
"You need direction, yeah you need a name. When you're standing in the crossroads every highway looks the same. After a while you can recognise the signs, so if you get it wrong you'll get it right next time"
- Get it right next time by Gerry Rafferty
Martin Johnson made his name facing his biggest challenges head on and he is unlikely to change the habit of a lifetime as he plots his side's assault on this year's Six Nations Championship title.
The England boss will announce his latest squad on Wednesday in the opening gambit ahead of this year's battle for the northern hemisphere crown. The jeers and groans that greeted his side's uninspiring autumn series appear to have subsided but Johnson and co will be well aware that a faltering start to their campaign against Wales and the cat calls will be ringing around Twickenham once again.
To escape the din following his side's latest capitulation to the All Blacks, Johnson may well have sought solace from his Ipod - which appears to be a staple part of the modern international player's kit. We can only guess as to the play list but there is a chance that he may have taken heart from the words and music of 70s singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty and maybe even adopted his Get it right next time song as his mantra. However, soft rock may be a more apt summary of his side's current reputation.
One try in their last three outings - albeit an eye-catching effort from winger Matt Banahan against Argentina - hints at a creative void but those shortcomings were largely forgiven due to a lengthy injury list that had hampered the squad's preparations. England's defensive endeavours in the autumn brought a little more cheer and built on the positives of last year's Six Nations, which was a quantum leap from the hapless showing at the end of 2008 when they did their best to masquerade as another of Rafferty's incarnations - The Humblebums.
Although the 2011 Rugby World Cup still appears to be some way off, this year's Six Nations is arguably the defining battle ground for not only those players hoping to force their way into contention but also for Johnson himself.
The increasing demands of the international calendar may suggest otherwise, but for the leading European countries, the Six Nations is the focal point of the season - the most important time of the year. Johnson, nor any of his northern hemisphere counterparts, will want to go into next year's Six Nations - just seven months from the sport's next showpiece - with anything resembling an unsettled side. The 2011 Championship should be all about refinement giving Johnson this year to work some magic and find a winning mix.
A summer tour to Australia will provide a certain amount of opportunities and pointers but the short nature of the trip and the fact that is comes at the end of a gruelling domestic season will perhaps ensure more questions than answers. Similarly, the end of year clashes will be welcomed as a clear indicator of inter-hemisphere fortunes but at the start of an epic season for his players the intense schedule will bring its own issues. That brings us to next year's Six Nations when the time for stop gaps, gambles and experimentation will be over.
Johnson himself appears to have ridden out the storm brought on by a disastrous set of results on his arrival in the post. It was the afore mentioned and unprecedented injury woe leading into the autumn internationals that gave him some precious breathing room and saw the sword of Damacles sheathed for the time being.
Only a disastrous set of results in this year's Championship would bring Johnson's reign to an end and with his armoury set to be bolstered by the likes of Delon Armitage, Riki Flutey and Toby Flood that scenario appears highly unlikely - with many tipping his side for the title with some of their rivals appearing to stumble. The Rugby Football Union remain committed, and have been throughout a tumultuous 18 months for their main man. They are only too aware of the importance of building momentum through to the opening volleys of RWC'11. As a result they know going back to the drawing board a little over a year before the world's best head to New Zealand would be a huge gamble and one they would not risk.
Even though Johnson's position is safe, do not expect him to throw caution to the wind in a bid to appease his many detractors - the rules of the Elite Player agreement limit him to only five squad changes based on form with injuries opening the door to others. To deviate too far from his long-held plan would hand his critics yet more ammunition and undermine his own efforts and those of his coaching team so do not expect changes for changes sake.
Johnson strikes you as a loyal task-master so do not be surprised to find some familiar names at the heart of England's bid and specifically the much-criticised captain and lock Steve Borthwick at the helm. Stability and continuity breed confidence and those are priceless elements Johnson has been forced to work without. But now he has the players and with them come increased expectation - the squad is the next step, then comes the team. Quite simply England must return to winning ways and do so in style if they are to convince their rivals they are still a force on the world stage.
England Senior Elite Player Squad (as announced July, 2009)
England manager Martin Johnson can make five form-based changes to this 32-man squad ahead of the Six Nations with injuries allowing additional changes.
Steffon Armitage (London Irish), Steve Borthwick (Saracens), George Chuter (Leicester Tigers), Jordan Crane (Leicester Tigers), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers), Louis Deacon (Leicester Tigers), Nick Easter (Harlequins), Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints), Ben Kay (Leicester Tigers), Lee Mears (Bath), Tim Payne (London Wasps), Tom Rees (London Wasps), Simon Shaw (London Wasps), Andrew Sheridan (Sale Sharks), Phil Vickery (London Wasps), Julian White (Leicester Tigers), David Wilson (Bath), Joe Worsley (London Wasps)
Delon Armitage (London Irish), Matt Banahan (Bath), Danny Care (Harlequins), Mark Cueto (Sale Sharks), Harry Ellis (Leicester Tigers), Toby Flood (Leicester Tigers), Riki Flutey (CA Brive), Dan Hipkiss (Leicester Tigers), Paul Hodgson (London Irish), Ugo Monye (Harlequins), Olly Morgan (Gloucester), Mathew Tait (Sale Sharks), Mike Tindall (Gloucester), Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon)
England Saxons Squad:
Richard Blaze (Leicester Tigers), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers), Alex Corbisiero (London Irish), Nick Kennedy (London Irish), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints), Matthew Mullan (Worcester Warriors), Tom Mercey (Saracens), Lewis Moody (Leicester Tigers), Luke Narraway (Gloucester), David Paice (London Irish), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Will Skinner (Harlequins), George Skivington (London Wasps), Dan Ward-Smith (London Wasps), Rob Webber (London Wasps), Nick Wood (Gloucester), Ben Woods (Leicester Tigers)
Nick Abendanon (Bath), Brad Barritt (Saracens), Danny Cipriani (London Wasps), Ben Foden (Northampton Saints), Shane Geraghty (Northampton Saints), Topsy Ojo (London Irish), Stephen Myler (Northampton Saints), Paul Sackey (London Wasps), Joe Simpson (London Wasps), David Strettle (Harlequins), Jordan Turner-Hall (Harlequins), Sam Vesty (Leicester Tigers), Dominic Waldouck (London Wasps), Richard Wigglesworth (Sale Sharks), Micky Young (Newcastle Falcons)
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September