Six Nations Championship
Johnson struck by malaise
February 12, 2009
Has Johnno bitten off more than he can chew with the England job? © Getty Images
Wales carried on where they had left-off in the autumn with a very professional performance against Scotland, England found very few positives in seeing-off woeful Italy and Ireland won through superbly in Dublin.
So far, true to form - it is reassuring when your logic prevails and your predictions are borne out. I even won a few bob!
England were hugely disappointing and despite all the attempts to find the plusses they must in their collective heart of hearts be very disappointed with themselves. I was fascinated to read Mike Tindall's comments. He watched the match from his hotel bed having pulled out with a back spasm and was able to give a detached view of the performance.
Whilst his erstwhile team-mates protested people were being harsh about their performance - 'Bloody hell, we scored five tries. What do they want? Blood?' was the gist from most of them - he fully understood why nobody was satisfied and had the honesty to admit England were poor.
What did England learn? Absolutely nothing! But there were more worrying indications of the lack of a real game plan from Martin Johnson. He appears to have been overtaken by a strange malaise - inaction. It is the last thing we associated with him as a player or more importantly as a leader on the field. Has Captain Courageous disappeared under the weight of the task he has inherited?
Fans of the great man - and I am (was) one of them - expected him to be radical, decisive and above all, aggressive. We expected a team built in his own image with a clear vision of where they are heading. All I see at the moment is confusion. It is a good job the statisticians' charts are not available to everyone as in American Football because I suspect two of his big ball carriers, captain, Steve Borthwick and Andy Sheridan, would have returned a negative 'rushing' yardage against Italy.
Andy Goode did the job he was brought in to do but even after a dream start drifted out of the game and showed himself to be nothing more than the steady club player with a big (but not very accurate) boot we know him to be.
Yet, for all the shortcomings Johnson has done nothing more than tinker. England desperately need a quick, skilful No. 7 to provide a link between the backs and forwards. What do they get? Joe Worsley, an occasional openside renowned not only for his big-hitting but also his clumsiness. I have seen it suggested he is there to curb Martyn Williams - sorry, they will be operating in different areas.
So far Johnson has been ultra-conservative - not even room for the exciting Ben Foden (what did he do wrong?) on the bench - and I just cannot see this England team being good enough to beat Wales in Cardiff unless the Welsh self destruct and under Warren Gatland that looks increasingly unlikely.
Wales do have a couple of injury worries - I just hope Andy Powell is fit because I'm relishing the battle between him and James Haskell - but now there is strength in depth and it will not worry them too much if he does not make it.
Ireland should be top of the table come Sunday evening. Half the skill in managing/coaching a national team is in selection and Declan Kidney has played a blinder since taking over in Ireland. With his Munster background many Irishmen expected him to select their pack lock, stock and barrel but he has tweaked it expertly by adding in Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip.
They are both 17 stoners and both youngsters which is important when the average age of the front five is 31. Heaslip has always been talented but he seldom plays for the full 80 minutes for Leinster. He certainly did it for Kidney, though, last weekend and the Irish pack now looks very formidable. Outside, He has also freshened up the backs and I expect them to run riot in the second-half against Italy.
It is a tough start to the Championship for Scotland. Wales were always going to be too good if they played up to their potential and now they have to go to Paris with France desperately needing to prove that their optimism has substance. They were remarkably upbeat after the defeat in Dublin, playing up the return to the running game and emphasising the positives.
Nevertheless, Marc Lievremont has admitted his selection was a bit too fast and loose by beefing up the pack to give his backs a better platform. Sebastien Chabal pays the price for going absent at the rucks and there is a harder, nastier edge to the front-row which will make life much more difficult for the Scots.
In fairness to them they stuck to their task manfully against Wales, playing some of their best rugby in the final quarter. OK, Wales may have taken their collective foot off the pedal but I thought Scotland showed enough to prove they might have been a handful if Wales had not started so well.
So, it's Wales to beat England, Ireland to demolish Italy and France to open their account against Scotland. At least I'm playing with my winnings.
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