Dynamic approach should turn England’s progress into success

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Martin Johnson sealed a Six Nations grand slam in Dublin as captain eight years ago, so doing so again tonight as England manager would apply symmetry to his stellar career.

Easier said than done, as he will be cautioning right up until kick-off at a tension-fuelled Aviva Stadium today.

For no one knows better how difficult Test match rugby is and how fickle its fortunes.

A grand slam and World Cup-winning captain in 2003, Johnson’s path to emulating the first phase as manager eight years later has hardly been easy.

Doubted from the moment he took office in the summer of 2008, right up until that breakthrough win in Sydney two years later, Johnson has travelled a long road to prove his worth to fans and sceptics, while the Rugby Football Union’s decision to appoint an untested coach has constantly been questioned.

Victory today would be the perfect riposte to those doubters, and an emphatic statement that his and the RFU’s policies have been astute.

Johnson’s England have been coming of age for the past nine months.

The seeds were sown on the final weekend of last year’s Six Nations, when a more adventurous England took the fight to champions-elect France.

Any revolution needs a victory to add credence, and Johnson had to wait three months for that to arrive when Lewis Moody’s men shocked Australia in their own backyard. Their subsequent destruction of the Wallabies at Twickenham in the autumn got everyone’s attention.

Repeating such a flawless performance was never going to be easy, but England have at least continued their progression in the Six Nations.

Ending their Cardiff hoodoo on the opening night, crushing Italy, and then edging past France and Scotland, shows England can not only beat teams convincingly, but can also find a way to claim the win when things are not going well. The key to Six Nations rugby is so often the latter.

What has helped this Spring as England and the rest of the northern hemisphere warm-up for the World Cup in New Zealand this September, is the consistency of selection Johnson has been afforded.

Injuries to captain Moody, lock Courtney Lawes and second row Tom Croft on the eve of the championship might have been expected to derail their title bid.

But what this tournament has illustrated is the growing depth of talent at England’s disposal.

Johnson has used only 17 starting players, with injuries to Andrew Sheridan and Mike Tindall forcing the only switches with Alex Corbisiero and Matt Banahan respectively.

That those four players are not even sure of their own participation in New Zealand says much.

For the feeling is growing that whoever dons the Red Rose will sweat blood and raise their game for the no-nonsense Johnson and an exacting English public.

In testing formulae and players in the first two sobering years of his reign, Johnson was hardening a squad for the demands of what would be a defining 2011.

“We’ve tried to be consistent and create an England team,” said Johnson.

“You need to see 10 to a dozen players and say, ‘That’s the England team’. I think we’re getting there now with selection.”

England’s progress – it would be hard to call it a success without victory today – has helped justify the RFU’s decision to appoint him in the wake of Brian Ashton’s much-maligned reign.

RFU chairman Martyn Thomas was the man who drove through Johnson’s promotion to the post, and after two years of defending that decision, and while acknowledging that Johnson has been afforded more time than his predecessors, he is on the cusp of being able to laud it as a prophetic appointment.

Thomas said: “It was a calculated gamble that he could deliver as England manager what he delivered as England captain, but I never had any doubts Martin would.

“England’s rugby fans have had to be very patient. I have not enjoyed having to back and support Martin when fans, who pay their money to see England win, are tearing their hair out.

“It would have been very easy for someone who didn’t have Martin’s determination and ability to put his head down and keep going, to have said before now ‘I can’t take this anymore, everyone is on my back and I am doing my level best’.

“I think Martin’s demeanour has changed in recent months by virtue of the fact people are now saying ‘Martin Johnson wasn’t a bad appointment at all’.”

Johnson is not a quitter, and the respect he commands from his players remains enormous.

“Martin Johnson is exactly the same now as he was when he was playing,” said Leeds Carnegie hooker Steve Thompson, one of only two members of today’s 22-man squad, along with Jonny Wilkinson, to have played in the 2003 game at Lansdowne Road that England won to seal the clean sweep.

“In those days he would say ‘jump’ and I’d say ‘how high?’ – and nothing has changed.

“He always had that authority about him. I don’t think he even knows it at times. He just demands respect from everyone. He was like that as a captain and now as a coach.”

Thompson will appear from the bench today, by which time a game that will be fought on a knife-edge throughout, is likely to be delicately poised.

If England are to win, they must attack Ireland, not sit back and allow a world-class player like Brian O’Driscoll to dictate the tempo. England have reached this landmark game by being dynamic.

Johnson added: “We know the pitfalls of playing these guys and we can’t fall into them. Our guys are as excited as they’ve been for any game this year. We see this as an opportunity more than anything.”

Spare a thought for Tindall. A CV that already has a grand slam and a World Cup win on it was set to be enhanced further by a captain’s role in a grand slam triumph which would have placed him in an elite club of English players, whose members include the likes of Johnson, Will Carling and Bill Beaumont.

But as has been the Otley-born centre’s curse throughout his career, injury struck at an inopportune time.

Still, the steadying hand of leadership he applied in the opening three-and-a-half games before being sidelined by ankle ligament damage will not be forgotten if and when Johnson gets the chance to congratulate his players as grand slam champions in the gathering gloom at the Aviva Stadium tonight.