Wednesday, 24 November 2010
Where Did it All Go So Right for England?
OK, so England lost 26-16 at the hands of Richie McCaw's All Blacks in the opening Autumn fixture, but what a difference a year makes. This time last November I travelled down to Twickenham to watch England crumble at the hands of a lacklustre New Zealand side. Everything seemed to be rotten in the England camp, the team was booed off at half-time against Argentina after arguably the most depressing England performance in years before they scraped to an unimpressive 16-9 win. Even though England won that day, it was probably the lowest point of Johnson's reign. The day that rugby died. Calls were ringing out for heads to roll in the RFU, most notably that of Rob Andrew, England's elite Director of Rugby. The fans were angered by Johnson's staunch refusal to play arguably some of the most dazzling up and coming talents the country had in the form of Courtney Lawes, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden. In short, last year's Autumn Internationals were an unmitigated disaster.
However, new blood was finally introduced and started flowing in the England ranks this summer. In June, the side notched up their first win in Australia since the 2003 World Cup final and fast forward to the present to see England playing instinctively and on the front foot. Ben Youngs, Toby Flood and Chris Ashton were instrumental in putting the Wallabies to the sword again, this time on home turf. These are the same names the country was screaming out for this time last year.
So did Martin Johnson have his strategy right all along or was the former England skipper more than a little bit lucky? It's an interesting question, and I'm sure Johnson will argue his plan was to introduce young players when he did after setting the foundations of a solid England side. Don't forget, those foundations were built around ex-skipper Steve Borthwick, a towering presence in the line-out but hardly cast in the mould of a modern day dynamic second-row, like Brad Thorn, Sam Whitelock, or Courtney Lawes.
People utter the words "seed-change" and talk about a new England as if Martin Johnson has morphed into a grinning Tony Blair circa 1997, peddling his wares about a bright future and salivating over the prospect of getting his ginormous hands on the Webb Ellis trophy yet again.
To win a world cup a team has to be the best in the world for six weeks. Just six weeks. All these November tests and summer tours are mere canapes to the main course which kicks off at Eden Park, Auckland in nine months time. My old history teacher always used to tell me that history is written by the winners. No-one will remember England's successes from this month if they crash and burn in New Zealand next year. And expectations are high: England were World Cup winners in 2003 and losing finalists in Paris four years later. The tournament is being held in New Zealand and anything but the sight of a triumphant All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw clutching the precious gold trophy will spell a disaster for the home crowd. Another epic New Zealand Rugby World Cup choke.
But similar expectation is starting to build once again for England's hopes of being crowned World Champions. Fans are so eager to hope and dream that two, hopefully three wins this November signals the World Cup could be, just maybe, coming back home.
This week, England coach Johnson was keen to play down the resurgence of his team, despite the fact they will start as favourites over the Springboks even though they are one place lower in the world rankings.
"Things happen very quickly, expectations change," he told BBC Sport.
"A couple of weeks ago, on the Friday before we played Australia, everyone was talking about them as the best team in the world - and they had a point. By the Wednesday they'd lost two games and suddenly they were in crisis.
"What this autumn series has highlighted is any of these teams is capable of beating the other one."
I'll give him that. Teams are in a crucial stage of final testing and preparation before next year's ultimate showdown. Ireland stepped up a few gears last weekend against New Zealand and if they hadn't switched off at crucial moments the result could have been oh so different. And then to Murrayfield, where Scotland pulled off the shock of the weekend, edging past South Africa 21-17. Teams are starting to stake their claim for World Cup glory, but all are still facing the daunting task of toppling New Zealand, Tri-Nations champions and ranked number one in the world, from their seemingly insurmountable position at the top.
So has England's resurgence been timed to perfection and can they climb the mountain to the World Cup final next October? Has Martin Johnson had a plan all along or did he bow to public pressure and change the way England play? Under skipper Lewis Moody, England look vibrant, full of dynamism, instinct and passion. Shooting stars like Ashton, Foden, Youngs, Lawes and Dan Cole have all made the step up to international rugby to name but a few. But what if England lose on Saturday? Will we all be back to square one?
I don't think so. England have been in a period of transition for the past two years but signs are they are now leaping out of the pit of despair, let alone clambering up the side. The old guard is stepping aside for the new. Whether it was Johnson's strategy all along or if he lucked out in a major way - or even sold his soul to the Devil - I don't care. I'm starting to believe in England again, one game at a time.