Johnson is now rapidly running out of time

PRAISED in defeat, mocked in victory – Martin Johnson just cannot win. At this rate, neither will his England team at the World Cup.

Third-place in the Six Nations this Spring represents a backwards step after the three wins that saw England finish runners-up to Ireland 12 months earlier.

Progress towards the World Cup in New Zealand in the autumn of 2011 is glacial at best.

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Giant strides are required over the next 18 months if England are to make an impression next year. All we have had so far in the two years of the Johnson era, are toddler's steps.

England under Johnson have discovered the art of the valiant defeat – the brave two-point loss to grand slam-winning France in Paris on Saturday night being the prime example.

But they have also developed a knack for uninspiring wins, like the turgid triumph over Italy in Rome and the embarrassingly laboured win over Argentina in the Autumn Internationals four months ago.

England are ranked seventh in the world for good reason. Johnson observed in Paris that they had lost to the new grand slam champions and the previous ones, Ireland, by only six points – but the gap is far wider than indicated.

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Save for Delon Armitage's interception in the opening game of the Six Nations that halted a rampant Wales and earned England the win, this could have been a crushing and embarrassing tournament for the Twickenham men and could have spelled a premature end to the tenure of the man who lifted the World Cup in Sydney in 2003.

As it is, Rob Andrew, as director of elite rugby, is the man looking over his shoulder with question-marks over the set-up of the management team and the RFU power-brokers steadfast in their manifesto that Johnson is the man who leads them in New Zealand.

So the gruff motivator is reprieved for now, saved by his side's valour in the face of much-vaunted opposition.

If England produce yet more heroic losses in the summer tour to Australia, will that be again deemed as progress?

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What England need, and have sadly lacked for the duration of Johnson's reign, is a base. The pack has changed, either through injury or loss of form, too often, and he is yet to settle on a back three, although the combination of Mark Cueto, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden brought more urgency and pace to the England attack.

Not even the back row has been settled with the starting pyramid of Nick Easter, James Haskell and Lewis Moody against Wales on February 6, disrupted by Joe Worsley's return and the strange about-turn of dropping Moody one week and then restoring him as captain the next.

Jonny Wilkinson remains a conundrum. If his inability to drive England forward has been exposed by the northern hemisphere teams, what will the Springboks, Wallabies and All Blacks do to a player whose best days may be gone?

Even the accurate kicking that you could bet your mortgage on as England built so many victories down the years, betrayed him this Spring, resulting in his removal from the starting line-up to face France.

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But he came off the bench to drill over a penalty in the rain at the Stade de France that reminded everyone of his obvious talent. Could Wilkinson's future lie in an impact substitute role similar to that of David Beckham for England's football team until an Achilles injury intervened?

There were bright points for England, enough to get the optimists believing there is a platform in place to challenge the best in the world.

Foden was exciting and clinical at full-back, Ashton provided enterprise and Mike Tindall proved there is still a quality 13 in England's ranks. Leeds-born Danny Care was perhaps the most consistent, and at last appears to have made the No 9 shirt his own.

But not enough leaps off the page about England. With only one Six Nations tournament, an autumn series and two summer tours between now and the World Cup, there is insufficient evidence to suggest they can sort it out swiftly enough.

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Time is running out, and the improvement must be quicker, come victory or defeat.



Danny Care: Has at last made the starting No 9 jersey his own thanks to his quick-tap dynamism and the tempo he brings to England's attack. One of England's best performers this Spring.

Ben Foden: The full-back was made to wait for his chance but grabbed the opportunity with his try in Paris. Brings a lot more urgency to the position and improving under high ball.

Toby Flood: With Wilkinson no longer certain of his place, the Leicester

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No 10 is a dependable replacement with the boot and provides more energy with ball in hand, although not as strong a tackler.

Dan Cole: Young prop was only brought in because of the amount of injuries the front row has sustained and looks to have the attributes to build on.

Hendre Fourie: The Leeds back row's club form elevated him into Martin Johnson's thinking and after debuting for the Saxons he spent the latter part of the Six Nations training with the elite squad. A possible for the summer tour.


Jonny Wilkinson: His accuracy with the boot was only 72 per cent, the lowest of the six regular starting fly-halves in the competition, but inability to direct England with ball in hand raised question marks.

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Delon Armitage: Lucky to start four games at full-back. Was the star early on in Johnson's reign but is bang out of form.

Mathew Tait: Does not prosper when he has to go in search of possession and failed to take his big chance to shine in favoured position.

Riki Flutey: Not the force he was in the 2009 Six Nations when he finished as top try-scorer, or indeed the summer Lions tour.

n coaching staff: With director of elite rugby Rob Andrew set to review his coaching staff there will be plenty to ponder about the roles of himself, Martin Johnson, Graham Rowntree, Mike Ford, Brian Smith and John Wells.