In an ideal world Martin Johnson would have wanted to build on the undoubted momentum created during the 6 Nations. With so many frontline players crocked, however, it was somewhat inevitable that any such momentum would stall. I know other countries have had injuries but if you consider that, from last season's England squad Andrew Sheridan, Lee Mears, Phil Vickery, Simon Shaw (until the NZ match), Joe Worsley (ditto), Nick Easter, Tom Rees, Harry Ellis, Toby Flood, Riki Flutey, Mike Tindall and Delon Armitage might all have expected to feature in the match day 22, it was always unlikey that England would make huge progress this Autumn.
That said, this campaign has been disappointing for a number of reasons:
- SELECTION - the fact that so many so-called established players were missing should have been a ready-made excuse for England to focus one eye on the World Cup and check out some up and coming talent. All Courtney Lawes did, however, was to get splinters in his arse whilst the "livid" Ben Foden and the perennially ignored Matthew Tait also saw little or no action. And where Johnson did choose to experiment, he got it badly wrong. It was obvious against Australia that Ugo Monye was no fullback (and personally I'm not that convinced about him as a winger) and that Matt Bahahan simply didn't have the skillset to play international rugby, for instance.
- COACHING - much has been said about the coaching set up, especially in relation to forwards coach John Wells. To be fair, England's set piece work has been up to scratch but our lack of nous at the breakdown is glaringly obvious and our inability to drive a maul - once our signature move - is just scary.
- TACTICS - it hasn't been at all obvious what the team has been trying to achieve. Playing a 2nd ⅝ in Shane Geraghty should have released England's strike runners but all we appeared to do was line up way behind the gain line and move the ball laterally. And then, against New Zealand, we pick an inside centre who can't pass? Clearly something is amiss. If Martin Johnson is team manager, who has the lead responsibility for coaching the team as a whole and setting the tactics? Wells? Brian Smith?
- CAPTAINCY - throughout the last 12 months I've staunchly defended Steve Borthwick and have thought that the criticism he has received from lazy journos has been excessive and largely unfair. Too often, I feel, he's carried the burden of the donkey work while played alongside more lightweight contributors such as Nick Kennedy and Louis Deacon. Packing down next to Simon Shaw, however, appears to have the effect of releasing him to be the influential player we often see in the Premiership - witness his performances against France, Scotland and New Zealand this year. That said, I'm beginning to come to the conclusion that, despite him being an all round honest, loyal and decent bloke (and a bloody good lock), the captaincy is beginning to weigh around his neck like a millstone and his reign is becoming too associated with failure. If I'm honest there isn't an obvious alternative candidate for the captaincy but perhaps now is nevertheless the time for a fresh approach and to let Borthwick just prove himself as a player.
All in all, although hampered by a ridiculous injury list, England's tendency to seek a short term fix is what has let the Johnson regime down this autumn. Had the short term solutions resulted in 2 or 3 victories, then they might have been justified, but where the quick fix has been an obvious failure then we have every right to wonder why the opportunity wasn't taken to assess the calibre of some of the talent coming through. Although it was nice to see Jonny back, the fact is that he created very little and the fly-half in form, Shane Geraghty, was marginalised at 12. Surely it would have worth a try (no pun intended) giving him a run at 10 and picking players like Tait and Foden and Wasps' Joe Simpson to have a go. And when you unearth a tyro like Courtney Lawes, what better way to find out if he's got what it takes than to let him loose on the Aussies and the Kiwis?
There are only 2 years until the World Cup. Next November will be too late to find out if these guys have what it takes. A chance has, I feel, been missed.