England face acid test


LONDON, February 26 – Winning isn't everything for England manager Martin Johnson — it's the only thing.And that may explain the World Cup-winning captain’s annoyance that an England team aiming to complete the third leg of a Six Nations Grand Slam, against defending champions Ireland at Twickenham here on Saturday, still faces sustained criticism for its style of play.

"When you win games you don’t have to make apologies for how you do it, although we seem to have to," said Johnson, with considerable feeling for a former lock, this week.

However, England only sparked into try-scoring form against Wales when their opponents were reduced to 14 men and then squandered numerous chances against an Italy team once more facing a wooden spoon battle.

The charge against Johnson’s team, and fly-half Jonny Wilkinson, whose usually impeccable goalkicking let him down in Rome, is that England need to do more if they are to defeat leading sides such as Ireland.

When England have enjoyed sustained success a strong pack has been supported by steady half-backs with a playmaking centre such as Clive Woodward in the early 1980s, Jeremy Guscott in the 1990s and, in Johnson’s World Cup-winning side, the under-rated Will Greenwood.

Mathew Tait, England’s lone try-scorer in Rome, appears the heir to that tradition yet much of England’s tactical kicking in Rome was aimless, while too many chances were squandered for comfort.

Nevertheless, England captain Steve Borthwick insisted immediately after the final whistle at the Stadio Flaminio his side had been "fantastic".

Disbelieving ex-England captain Lawrence Dallaglio countered: "You don’t pretend you’ve performed when you haven’t."

Meanwhile, ever cautious Ireland coach Declan Kidney observed: "Last year there was some negative press over England but they still finished second in the Championship."

Johnson, keen to avoid England playing an open game just to placate their critics, did suggest his unchanged side — although wing Mark Cueto had a stomach bug on Thursday — understood the need for flexibility against Ireland.

"If we have to kick for 80 minutes on the day to win, we’ll do it; if we have to run the ball for 80 minutes, we’ll do it," he said.

Another question concerns how Ireland will respond to a crushing 33-10 defeat by France in Paris that put paid to their bid for a second successive Grand Slam and ended a 12-match unbeaten run.

Ireland’s ‘golden generation’ lost much of its lustre against a younger, sharper and more powerful France team.

Even Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll was reduced to the status of a rugby mortal by the tournament leaders and the centre admitted there could be some lingering damage.

"We feel we’re going in the right direction but all you need is one bad result and that’s what happened in Paris," O’Driscoll said. "If you’ve previously been carried away, that sort of result can inhibit your future."

Such sentiments may explain Kidney’s decision to drop veteran Ronan O’Gara and bring in Jonathan Sexton for only the fly-half’s third cap.

Sexton may be a novice but when put to the test, be it guiding Leinster to victory over Johnson’s old side Leicester in last season’s European Cup final or helming Ireland’s November win over world champions South Africa, he has responded superbly.

An injury to full-back Rob Kearney has led to a recall for Geordan Murphy, with lock Donncha O’Callaghan returning after a knee problem and Rory Best replacing Jerry Flannery following the Munster hooker’s suspension for tripping France wing Alexis Palisson.

Others may come and go but John Hayes just keeps going and his exemplary endurance will be rewarded once again when the prop becomes the first player to win 100 caps for Ireland on Saturday.