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Martin Johnson has tough choices over England’s style and squad

August 21st, 2011 by · No Comments · Features

Naming his 30 for the World Cup will be just the start for the manager, who claims that a few tweaks will restore form

When England defeated Australia at Twickenham last November showing the chutzpah and cunning more normally associated with the men in green and gold, their manager, Martin Johnson, permitted himself no more than a rare smile even though his charges had showed that the English game was about more than grunt and grind. The victors that day strongly suggested that the European cause in the following year’s World Cup was far from hopeless.

“We can’t live off this: we carry on and look to the next game,” Johnson said. “You don’t pat yourself on the back in rugby union.” The euphoria of that autumn afternoon rolled into the new year with a first victory in Cardiff for eight years and an exuberant thrashing of Italy before gradually ebbing until England arrived in Dublin and found the tide had gone out.

Last Saturday’s defeat by Wales in Cardiff, England’s last warm-up match before Monday’s announcement of the 30 who will go to New Zealand to battle for a third successive World Cup final, was the polar opposite of the swaggering performance against Australia nine months before. It was seen as a reversion to type, caution and formula replacing instinct and derring-do.

Just as Johnson did not get carried away when his side scored tries for fun, nor was he enshrouded in gloom after Cardiff after 70% of possession yielded three penalties. He said: “It is not a case of going back to the drawing board. All it needs is a tweak, not fundamental change. We attacked the Wales line for long periods and, while it was frustrating not to score a try, it would have been more frustrating had we not been in their 22 so often.

“If we had taken some of the points we were offered with penalties, it would have changed the face of the game. We had chances but did not finish them off: we were turned over and lost the ball in contact on a few occasions. We need to sharpen ourselves up but fitness was not an issue in either of the games against Wales. We just have a few things to work on.”

The last time England landed on southern hemisphere soil for a World Cup campaign, in 2003, Johnson was the captain. England arrived in Sydney as favourites, having won in New Zealand and Australia after completing the grand slam. The dilemma then for their manager, Clive Woodward, was whom to leave out. Johnson is not so blessed. Although he said he pretty much knew his 30, he was less sure about his strongest XV. Danny Care’s withdrawal with a toe injury leaves England reliant on Ben Youngs at scrum-half; Lewis Moody’s absence was keenly felt in Cardiff where Sam Warburton bossed the breakdown; and Chris Ashton supplies much of the electricity behind.

Even when England were in their pomp last season, Johnson was constantly interrogated about his preferred centre pairing of Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall, a combination that has never been regarded as complementary. Manu Tuilagi’s try-scoring debut against Wales at Twickenham offers an extra option but at 12 Riki Flutey has struggled to find the form he showed with the Lions in South Africa in 2009.

“The midfield was good enough to beat Australia and win the Six Nations,” Johnson says. “If Matt Banahan had scored early on against Wales and we had been given a penalty try, we would have been in a good position. There will be some difficult conversations with players over the weekend. Do we take three hookers and three scrum-halves?

“We will not take anyone because they are a utility player. It is a matter of flexibility and there are players in the forwards and backs who cover different positions. And then there are injuries. We hope that Lewis Moody, Ben Youngs, Andrew Sheridan and Chris Ashton will all be fit to face Ireland [in Dublin on Saturday].

“If we take Lewis to New Zealand, it will be because he is fit to play in the tournament. Everyone has injuries and it is not an exact science because some players come back quicker than others. I am not thinking about 2003 because that was a different circumstance in every regard, starting with the timing of it. What matters is that when we get things right, we can give anyone a game.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & ConditionsMore Feeds

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