Johnson planning for brighter future as Ireland shatter grand slam dream

ENGLAND’S grand slam bid unravelled in anti-climactic fashion in Dublin on Saturday evening yet pragmatic Martin Johnson believes his team are in a ‘good place’ heading into the World Cup.

England are, after all, Six Nations champions for the first time in eight years despite being outclassed by Ireland.

But when a grand slam had been theirs for the taking, the first tournament triumph of the Johnson era has a hollow ring to it.

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The England players return to their club sides this morning and will not reconvene again until mid-summer ahead of three warm-up games before their World Cup campaign kicks off against Argentina, in New Zealand, in September.

That is a long time to dwell on such an insipid performance, but Johnson – despite admitting frustration at his side’s error-strewn performance – was not getting carried away by the 24-8 defeat.

“I think we’re in a pretty good place,” said Johnson, who captained the England side that lost a grand slam in Ireland 10 years ago, and then the one that atoned two years later for the Red Rose’s 12th, and most recent clean sweep.

“The guys are disappointed, they’ll go back into their clubs now, they’ve got big games. But as a group, overall, the season has been good.

“If you’d have said to us at the start you’d be in Dublin with a chance to win a grand slam – and let’s not forget we’ve won the championship – we’d have been happy with it.

“But you’re not happy when after four wins you come and play like we did. It’ll keep us humble and our feet on the ground. It’s not a nice thing to have.

“It’s tough, but we’ll be better for it.”

Johnson conceded his team had no one but themselves to blame for such a one-sided loss.

Defeats – which were the norm in the early days of Johnson’s reign – are no longer greeted with the excuse of it being a learning curve, such is the growing belief exuding from the camp after such a promising campaign.

And the team manager remains convinced his young charges, while still being a long way from the finished article, are at least on the right track.

He said: “Defeat is a scar and we have to wear that scar a little bit. We can make it a good thing or a bad thing from where we go now.

“The good thing for us is we’re now into planning for the World Cup camp and looking at guys who might come in and have a shot, and also what we need to do as a team.

“Some of these guys are playing a full season for the first time.

“(Ben) Youngs, (Toby) Flood haven’t done it before – a few of them haven’t. We can be a lot, lot better team. These are still our best players, we know we’ve got areas to improve on, we knew that coming into this game.

“You guys (media) talk about winning grand slams, we talk about winning breakdowns.

“We know where we’ve got to get better and games like this reinforce that to the players; what they’ve got to do, to get better.

“We missed a Lewis Moody out there, missed his experience and his savvy, the same goes for Mike (Tindall).

“We still went with a team, though, good enough to win.”

There was only one team good enough on the day; Ireland outplayed England from first whistle to last.

Fly-half Jonathan Sexton dictated the tempo with his boot – both in open play and with the 14 points he scored through four penalties and his conversion to a try by Brian O’Driscoll – the world class centre setting a new all-time Six Nations try-scoring record with his 47th-minute score.

Tommy Bowe had crossed in the first half, with England responding only through Flood ‘spenalty and a late interception try by Leeds Carnegie hooker Steve Thompson.

“It was a horrible first half,” conceded Johnson. “The turnovers hurt us and then we were compounding the errors.

“That’s how tries happen, with two or three consecutive errors. Sometimes you’ve just got to stop the bleeding and take your medicine.

“We just couldn’t get that string of scores together to put pressure on them.

“So it was disappointing. We’d talked about game management and fighting our way back into it if we went behind and we just couldn’t do it.

“Twice we had good position in that second half and threw the ball away. You can talk about stopping those mistakes, but you’ve actually got to go out and do it under that pressure.

“Ireland are very savvy, have got a lot of veterans. They played the game they wanted, they were effective at the breakdown and we didn’t deal with that.

“People talk about basic errors – there’s no other kind, the game is a game of fundamentals.

“We didn’t do them well enough. We’ve lost the game and the grand slam. We got ourselves four wins and came here to win a Test match and we weren’t good enough.

“We have no one else to blame but ourselves and we’ve got to be a better team the next time we play.”

Youngs accepts he still has so much to learn

DISTRAUGHT Ben Youngs blasted his own performance and lack of self-discipline in Dublin on Saturday night as England’s young guns were taught a lesson by Ireland.

The 21-year-old Leicester scrum-half has become the face of England’s dynamic revolution. But when all the promise fell apart in the Irish capital on Saturday night, the No 9, who was sin-binned after only 35 minutes for throwing the ball away and then hauled off by Martin Johnson, at least had the good grace to accept his failings.

“I’m gutted, I played like an idiot,” he said. “It’s one of those things, I have to take it on the chin.

“It’s a good test of character, let’s see what I’m made of. Hopefully I’ll bounce back. I’ve got some good guys around me who will pull me through.”

Youngs was not alone in performing poorly. Johnson’s side had impressed en route to a grand slam title tilt but froze on the big occasion.

“It wasn’t a case of the occasion getting to me, or the players,” offered Youngs. “We just couldn’t get our hands on the ball.

“We knew Ireland would come at us, but they never took their foot off the gas.

“We never got the ball, never got the territory, never had a long enough spell and ultimately we never got in the game.

“We’re a very strong unit and we’ll come back better from this, I guarantee that.

“On a personal level I will work hard and make sure I don’t perform like that.

“It’s happened, it’s not easy to swallow for the first few days but we’ll be better for this.”

On his yellow card, awarded by New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence after Ben Foden had denied David Wallace a try, Youngs had no complaints.

“I regret it now, if I’d known what was going to happen I wouldn’t have done it,” he said.

“But the referee’s in charge, whatever he decides stands.

“I just caught the ball and lobbed it away. I just have to take it on the chin, but if anything, I won’t do it again.”

Blindside flanker Tom Wood, who has been one of the stars of the campaign after only making his debut in the tournament opener in Wales because of injuries in the back row, cut a dejected figure at the end.

“It’s obviously very disappointing, you feel as though you’ve had your heart ripped out,” said the Northampton forward.

“We got caught cold at the start and that’s unacceptable at this level.”