Time for Johnson to make the Red Rose bloom again

ENGLAND begin this year’s RBS 6 Nations as the bookmakers’ favourites and, with an encouraging autumn series behind them and three home games in the championship, the initial predictions were that Martin Johnson’s ripening side, currently ranked fourth in the world, would be able to live up to those lofty expectations.

In mid-November a record 35-18 victory over Australia – England’s first win over southern hemisphere opposition on home soil in four years – heralded a renaissance. With eight of the starting XV under 26, suddenly the future looked bright for Johnson’s team, who appeared to be maturing at the right time, 10 months before the World Cup in New Zealand.

When 23-year-old winger Chris Ashton scorched the earth with his blistering pace and crossed for a two-pass try that was started behind his own line by scrum-half Ben Youngs, the Twickenham crowd rose to their feet and marvelled at one of the best scores they had witnessed at RFU headquarters.

There blossomed a genuine sense that for the first time in eight long years since England last won the RBS 6 Nations – and went on to be crowned world champions – Johnson’s bright young things were finally equipped with the skill and dazzling adventure to take the country out of the rugby shadows and into the limelight once more.

But will it prove to be another false dawn? A 21-11 loss to a heavily depleted South Africa side concluded the autumn series and team manager Johnson, who skippered England to that RBS 6 Nations and World Cup double in 2003, has been beset by problems in the days that have passed since that sunny November afternoon.

Going into the championship the 40-year-old is missing three key forwards and, as a result, has some tough tactical decisions to make that could determine not only how his team perform over the next few weeks, but also in the World Cup, which looms in the near distance.

Missing openside flanker and captain Lewis Moody initially, as well as important line-out operators Courtney Lawes, the 21-year-old lock, and back-row Lion Tom Croft through injury, the beating heart of the pack has been ripped out. With another second row, Dave Attwood, ruled out by suspension, Johnson, who has made No8 Nick Easter pack leader, will have to gamble on his selection in England’s tough championship opener against Wales at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow evening.

Two years ago in Cardiff, when Johnson took charge of only his second RBS 6 Nations game, he opted for the back-row brawn and barnstorming of Joe Worsley, now 33, and James Haskell. This time he has paired Haskell with Tom Wood, 24, who, like his Northampton Saints team-mate Phil Dowson, has been promoted from the Saxons squad as cover and has more guile, albeit a shortage of game time at international level.

Leeds Carnegie’s South Africa-born flanker Hendre Fourie had been first in line for the No7 jersey, but he has a calf problem, while the Leicester lock George Skivington sprung from outside the 64-strong elite player group to challenge.

However, boasting one of the world’s best front-row trios, made up of excellent tight-head prop Dan Cole, Saints hooker Dylan Hartley and powerhouse Andrew Sheridan, the Red Rose will hope to gain an advantage up front.

There are issues in the backs, though, with Delon Armitage suspended for eight weeks following an altercation with a doping official, and lingering doubts remain over Johnson’s best centre partnership. In addition, there is the question of whether to play the hero of 2003, Jonny Wilkinson, at fly-half or the younger Toby Flood, who impressed last year in white. Wilkinson, 32 in May, needs only 11 points to reclaim the world points record from All Black Dan Carter (1,188), but Johnson has been pleased by the development of Leicester’s Flood, flatmate of fellow Tiger Cole.

Regardless of which of the duo is preferred at No10, England are still lacking a convincing centre pairing. Johnson has said that World Cup winner Mike Tindall, who has won 66 caps as a midfield banger, will captain England in Moody’s absence. However, the injury-prone 32-year-old still has his detractors, and it will be an important series for the outside centre.

England have the best home record in the RBS 6 Nations, having won 22 out of 27 games at Twickenham, which bodes well.

This campaign they host Italy, reigning champions France and Scotland at HQ and the RFU’s new CEO, John Steele, has said only a top-two finish will satisfy. But Johnson will have to set the right tone in Cardiff, where England have not won since grand slam glory eight years ago, or else his nascent side’s fragile confidence could crumble and the bright flicker of autumn hope could be extinguished in the winter chill.

Three more who need a good tournament

CHRIS ASHTON
The Northampton winger, 24 next month, made his international bow against France in last year’s RBS 6 Nations, in part due to the clamour to promote the 2009-10 Premiership top scorer. The Wigan-born flyer, who played four times for England’s rugby league team, looked nervous in Paris, but has developed his game and is now one of the most feared finishers in world rugby. His try against Australia underlined his potency, but he will want to banish the remaining question marks over his tackling ability and positional sense when defending this spring.

MIKE TINDALL
The Gloucester centre has been a regular on front pages since becoming engaged to girlfriend Zara Phillips, granddaughter of the Queen. But he’ll have to shelve thoughts of marriage for now, especially as he has been asked to deputise as captain in the absence of Lewis Moody. The 16st Tindall started next to Will Greenwood when England beat Australia to win the 2003 World Cup – and it remains the Red Rose’s finest moment. The game has moved on since then though, and critics say Tindall’s game has remained antediluvian and one-dimensional.

BEN YOUNGS
One of the finds of last year, the Leicester No9 was third choice for his club when Johnson asked him to tour Australia in the summer. The 21-year-old soon ousted the incumbent Danny Care, showing superior rugby intelligence – and a keener eye for a gap – than the Harlequins scrum-half. Youngs’s speed of thought and electric acceleration have transformed England’s attacking play. When he gets it right – and he usually does – this maverick can be a match winner, as against Australia in November, when he outshone Will Genia, for many the best No9 on the planet.

Star man: Nick Easter
The 32-year-old made his Test debut in the 2007 RBS 6 Nations against Italy and eyebrows were raised when the rugged, slow-paced Harlequins No8 became a Red Rose regular. But the 6ft 4in backrower is now an elder statesman of the team with 38 caps to his name and has grown in importance.

The former Dulwich College schoolboy’s influence will be more keenly felt as he leads the pack in the absence of Moody. And like the blond No7, proud Englishman Easter can be relied upon to sacrifice pints of blood, sweat and tears for his country.

In the autumn Easter stepped in for the Bath flanker as captain and did a fine job in the 26-13 victory over Samoa. If Mike Tindall hadn’t been fit for the opening game in Cardiff Johnson would have turned to Easter to skipper the side. As it is, he will be disappointed to have been overlooked. Perhaps the England management’s thinking is that Easter needs to channel all his energies into being the cohesive element for a depleted forward eight, shorn of key line-out operators.

Though he does not have the pace of Pierre Spies – the 17st Springbok No8 has clocked 10.7 seconds running the 100 metres – Easter has an unerring knack of being in the right place at the right time as well as the ability to control his side’s tempo from his position at the back of the scrum, in the mould of his former Quins mentor Dean Richards.

He is blessed with impressive ball skills too – a technical proficiency and coordination inherited from his father John, Britain’s No1 squash player in the 1970s. The performances of Easter, who has helped Quins reach the Aviva Premiership’s upper echelons again this season, finally wiping clean Bloodgate’s stain, will be central to England’s showing in the RBS 6 Nations – and beyond.