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Johnno circles the wagons

LONDON, March 25 – England manager Martin Johnson launched a passionate defence of his under-fire coaching staff on Wednesday following his team's disappointing Six Nations campaign.Despite England only finishing third in the final Six Nations standings with just two wins to their name, World Cup-winning captain Johnson has escaped the brunt of the criticism which has come from many quarters, particularly from former England players in the media.

Instead, there have been calls for the heads of members of Johnson’s backroom staff – attack coach Brian Smith, defence coach Mike Ford and forwards coach John Wells – as well as Rob Andrew, the Rugby Football Union’s elite rugby director.

Johnson confirmed the coaches – whom he inherited with the exception of Smith – would remain in place for England’s post-season tour of Australia and New Zealand, a decision publicly endorsed by the RFU, and insisted most of the criticism had been unfair.

"I don’t anticipate making any changes," Johnson told reporters at Twickenham on Wednesday.

"I thought the coaches did an outstanding job this season," the former British and Irish Lions captain added.

"You see the criticism thrown in by people and you think, ‘What the hell do you know about it? You may have heard something second-hand, but what’s your knowledge based on’. I’m in there every day and am very happy with their (the coaches) involvement.

"Mistakes happen on the field. Perhaps coaches get some things wrong but a lot of the time it’s player error which is also a factor."

England beat Wales and Italy in the Six Nations, but drew against Scotland in a drab match at Murrayfield and were defeated by Ireland and France, the leading two northern hemisphere teams.

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In the 12-10 loss away to France in the final match of the tournament, there were finally some positives for Johnson, such as Ben Foden’s display at full-back and the way England took the game to the eventual Grand Slam winners.

Johnson believes continuing with the same group of players in the run-up to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand will eventually pay dividends.

"You try to keep a squad together and help them build trust in themselves and also the team – you don’t do that with knee-jerk reactions and responding to every little bit of criticism that comes our way," said the legendary lock, who captained his country to World Cup glory in 2003.

"If a team isn’t doing particularly well, there are calls for changes in players, changes in coaches.

"It’s obviously ultimately disappointing at the end of a tournament to have two losses and a draw. It’s not where we wanted to be.

"But in saying that, in all those games there isn’t one we couldn’t have won," Johnson added.

Lawrence Dallaglio, the former England captain and back-row forward, has led calls for Andrew to be sacked, claiming the former Test fly-half had failed to create a set-up "conducive to producing a world-class team".

But Andrew, who was a key figure in the appointment of Johnson, who had no coaching experience, to the England post in 2008, said: "Lawrence is entitled to his views but I’m comfortable with the job I’m doing.

"We aren’t where we’d like to be in terms of winning the Six Nations so we have to look at why that’s happened and how we move forward."

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England haven’t won the Six Nations since a Grand Slam in 2003 – a poor return for a team with their resources – and RFU management board chairman Martyn Thomas said: "To come third in the Six Nations is clearly disappointing but we know that nobody is more disappointed than the England team management and the players."

Thomas, who labelled speculation about Johnson and Andrew as "unwarranted and unsubstantiated", added: "The RFU has consistently said that Martin Johnson will be the England team manager through to the World Cup in 2011 and that remains our position."



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