Johnson making all the wrong noises as he enters last chance saloon
Before the Six Nations, Ian McGeechan, in a discussion about the travails of the England coaches, commented: “Players don’t remember what you said in team talks or whatever, they don’t remember what they did in practices. But what they do remember is the way you made them feel.” In other words a coach can analyse, philosophise, thump tubs and decorate flip charts until he’s blue in the face but if it does not contribute to sending the players on to the pitch with a confident, positive mindset he may as well not have bothered with any of it.
There are many ways of doing this. Jose Mourinho sends his team out entirely clear on what their specific roles are and that he is confident in each of them. Sir Clive Woodward created the most professional of environments in which each player was treated like an adult and was encouraged to believe that he was the best in the world at what he did. Sir Alex Ferguson’s methods are a mixture of the two.
In this context, you have to ask what on earth the England management are putting into the heads of their players for such a long succession of them to consistently play so far below themselves when they pull on the white jersey. For as long as we care to remember they have looked careworn, indecisive and diminished. They are clearly not taking the field in the appropriate mental state.
During the Six Nations we asked on this blog whether this was a general failing in the English rugby system that they are producing players ill-equipped for the rigours of international sport or whether the finger should be pointed at the coaches for abjectly failing to get their message across and, just as importantly, failing to realise this and adapting their message accordingly.
A couple of incidents in the match against Australia on Saturday pointed seemingly conclusively towards the latter. During the second half, Australia hoofed a long clearance kick downfield. Ben Foden, the best attacking player in the Premiership last season, fielded it in his own 22 with nobody within 40 yards of him. And called a mark. I had to rewind the Sky Plus to make sure I’d seen this right. It would never have even crossed his mind to do such a thing in a Northampton shirt. The freest spirit in English rugby had somehow morphed into a frightened, safety-first conservative. And even if he had always been that, it was still the most woolly piece of decision-making.
The other incident was really a series of incidents, namely every time England got to within 10 yards of Australia’s line. Most teams up the pace and intensity at this stage as it always takes an extra effort to finally break the door down. England do the exact opposite. They slow down to somewhere a little south of snail’s pace. Even if you are going to pick and go, you do not have to stand there for 30 seconds with the ball at the base waiting for the opposition to realign. In short, they are petrified of making a glaring error. It is as though they would rather a collective failure than an individual error.
This sums up the problem and brings us back to the messages being transmitted from coach to player. After every abject performance, Martin Johnson bangs on about the unacceptable error count. He said it after the first Australian Barbarians game, after the test match and umpteen times over the course of his tenure. He then drops players for making glaring errors and sticks with those who have not made them mainly because they haven’t tried anything.
The result is that England players are petrified of trying anything because they are likely to be vilified and we end up playing a no risk no reward brand of rugby. They know that if they make a handling error near the opposition line, they will be vilified. If Foden had run, isolated himself and conceded a penalty, he would have got an ear-bashing. This coaching team seems prepared to reward cowardly rather than brave rugby, with players happier to disappear into the morass than put themselves on the line.
Players like Dan Hipkiss, Mat Tait, Toby Flood, Danny Care, Tom Palmer and Dylan Hartley have all won enough caps to have made a serious impact and become central players. But how many individual moments can you remember from the international careers of any of them?
Contrast that with their inexperienced rivals such as Will Genia, David Pocock, James O’Connor, Digby Ioane and Quade Cooper who have all taken to international rugby as if to the manor born. They have been given the freedom to indulge their talents without the fear that they will be taken to task if they make a mistake. Better to make an incorrect decision but carry it through with conviction than to make no decision at all. Ben Youngs, an exciting prospect, is starting at 9 on Saturday. For God’s sake let him play and trust that he will make the right decision or at the very least give him the opportunity.
There are other areas where the England coaching team have erred in terms of the message they are conveying. Graham Rowntree spoke on Sunday of how “We are still developing a good environment”. Well you’ve had 2 years Graham, how long do you expect it to take because there’s a World Cup coming up in 15 months? Johnson constantly clutches at straws about progress referring to the team as a ‘work-in-progress’. But at some point they have to deliver. The All Blacks and the Springboks are never a work in progress, they are expected to deliver every time they take the field. Australia, with their smaller playing pool, have to adhere more tightly to the 4 year World Cup cycles but England have the resources to not require this. They should be up there the whole time.
Most worrying is the message such talk sends to the players. It is basically an excuse which says that this game does not matter so much in terms of the big picture. It implies we are constantly working towards some unidentified, intangible point in the future. But the best way to go on a winning run is to start winning and do everything you can to make it a habit. And that means not making any excuses, still less the same one over and over again and still less one that appears to explain away a defeat in terms which suggest that particular game does not matter. And as far as this excuse goes, it should be noted that the England starting XV last weekend boasted 413 caps against 300 for Australia. Both teams could be termed ‘work-in-progress’ but only one of them uses it to justify a wretched performance.
Frankly, Johnson and his coaching team are running out of time. They have failed to make their message stick, to find a way of communicating with the players in a way which brings out the best in them. It must be close to the stage where it is irretrievable for this set of men. Whether Rob Andrew has the cojones to make the call remains to be seen. Martin Johnson has got away with it thus far because of who he is but his record compares unfavourably with his 2 immediate predecessors, Brian Ashton and Andy Robinson, both of whom were vilified by the press and supporters. By any fair measure, and if England are to have any chance at the next World Cup, it has to be now for Johnson, or, much as it pains me to say, never.
By Stuart Peel