Evening Standard

Focus: Martin Johnson is gearing up for the World Cup later this year. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

The Rugby Football Union may be in meltdown: John Steele, the chief executive, sacked; Martyn Thomas, the chairman, forced to step down; and a confidential report claims that “trust has broken down within the RFU”.

But team manager Martin Johnson is sure it will make no difference to England’s chances in the World Cup, which starts in New Zealand in six weeks.

We are at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, less than half an hour’s drive from Twickenham. Johnson has just finished a hard morning training session with his 45-strong squad and I ask him if the turmoil at HQ will have any impact.

“No, not at this stage,” he says firmly. “If it was 18 months ago and we were wanting to make big decisions, maybe it would have. Two years ago would have been harder because we may have been looking for some new players. But everything’s in place in terms of our preparation. We’re set up here.

“The last four weeks have just flown by. Next week is the last of our training camp and then we’re into warm-up games. We’re off in five weeks. We’ll be on the plane before we know it.”

But surely the players cannot be immune from the extraordinary events concerning the blazer brigade? Johnson pours out a cup of tea and, looking straight ahead, says: “It is really far removed from the players, it doesn’t affect them.

It’s not going on at their club, to whom they’re contracted. They come and play for England, so they’re just getting on with what they do.

“They want to get in the World Cup squad, they want to get better as players. Their concerns are: what am I doing today?, what’s the training?, what’s for dinner? I doubt if there’s been any huge discussions about it. It would have been the same in any team I’ve played in.”

Had things turned out differently at Twickenham, Johnson could have been going to New Zealand with Sir Clive Woodward, his coach when the former second-row lifted the 2003 World Cup. The farce at the RFU was sparked by the desire to make Woodward elite performance director.

Johnson says: “It’s too late in the day for anything – whatever appointment would or wouldn’t have been made. I’m still the coach, we’re set on our course and we’re happy with it.”

And 41-year-old Johnson, whose contract ends after the tournament, does not want to think about what happens after New Zealand.

“When John [Steele] was here he said, ‘Let’s talk about it after the World Cup’. I said, ‘That’s great. I’m very happy’. The hard thing to do is put the squad together and pick the 30. We’ve got to leave some very good players here.”

Johnson has to cut 15 players from those currently training and that might mean leaving behind some of the younger ones who have come through in the last year. It is their arrival that pleases Johnson most.

“Last season, people were telling me to give some youngsters a chance and I said, ‘The youngsters are playing’.

“We were probably missing that young generation for a little bit but they have started to come through: Chris Ashton, Ben Foden, Danny Care, Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes, Alex Corbisiero, Tom Wood, Dan Cole. There are lots of them. And some of them aren’t that young now. They’ve been around a year or so, we’re not a young team any more.”

England’s recent form, winning the 2011 Six Nations for the first time since 2003 and a Test in Australia last year – only the third-ever victory there – is a big change from the early days of Johnson’s stewardship. Then, as England floundered, he came under intense criticism, not least from ex-players.

“That’s the way it is,” he shrugs. “If you do this job, you’re going to get criticised. Often people write things in the paper when they don’t have the full picture. Sometimes you can’t give all the reasons because they are confidential. I’ve not got an issue with that. When you’re having a bad day, it can get on your nerves but nothing more than that.”

Contrary to popular opinion, Johnson did not have any doubts about taking over as manager in 2008. “No, I didn’t have to be coaxed,” he says. “On your worst days you might think, ‘Christ, what am I doing?’ But it’s only a small thought for a short time.”

That thought was far away when he gathered the players on their first day at Pennyhill and set them a target.

“I said to the players: ‘We want to be playing in the World Cup Final and you want to go to the tournament. But actually it starts tomorrow when you go and lift your first weight or you do your first pass or you catch your first line-out or you make your first tackle. You’re living the moment and you take care of that, and you find yourself playing well, in good form, physically fit, all those things you need to get into the squad, get into the team, go to the World Cup, be effective, win games. Get the first game right from the first minute. If you’re 10-0 down in the opening game then it seems like a bit of a silly thing to be talking about winning the Cup, doesn’t it?'”

This intensely practical sense also makes Johnson refuse to see any team in England’s group as weak.

“I’m worried about them all because the game gets more global,” he says. “We’ve got Argentina, who are very effective and were No3 in the world last year. We’ll also play Scotland, Romania and Georgia. We played Georgia eight years ago in their first game in the World Cup and they were physical, tough and strong. They’re going to be a lot better now. So we will concentrate on them all and, if we do the right job, we’ll play the second-placed team of the New Zealand pool.”

The one thing he dismisses is the controversy generated by England’s new black away kit. This has even led to New Zealand Prime Minister John Key alleging that England are trying to imitate the All Blacks.

“I don’t think it’s a big issue for us,” says Johnson. “What did we have last year? Grey. The guys quite enjoyed wearing that. Purple before that. I don’t think the boys mind what colour shirt it is as long as they get to wear it.”

The final squad will be announced on August 22 after matches with Wales at Twickenham, on August 6, and in Cardiff, a week later. There will be one final game to hone his preparations on August 27 against Ireland in Dublin before the World Cup opener with Argentina in Dunedin on September 10.

“I know what our options are but things can change, guys can impress now,” he warns. “Some guys will have to work hard to get the opportunity to play in those warm-up games but that’s what it is, competitive and, touch wood, we won’t get any more injuries.”

The players, who used full contact in training this week for the first time, are well aware that they will go to New Zealand under the leadership of a man who has lifted the trophy and has a certain aura. When I mention to him that many, including Nick Easter, have said that, he laughs.

“Did Nick Easter really say that? It helps, I guess. I’ve played in World Cups but coaches don’t have to do the job. I’ve played under coaches who haven’t done it. It is about trying to give people your experience. If you can give that to players on the way up that can accelerate their learning. It’s one of the biggest things we’re trying to do.”

It does not always work, as the Ireland game which denied England the Grand Slam in March, showed. “We’d rather have won the Grand Slam in that game but ultimately we weren’t good enough on the day to do it,’ Johnson says, ‘So what do we do?

“We pack up and go or come back and try again? Well, from my point of view, we’ll be back and better for it. For the team and some of those individuals, from where we were a year ago it has been a pretty rapid progression.

“We’re under a lot of pressure. The expectations on teams and on players are not always real or sensible. So we’ve had to deal with that side of it as well. And, generally, we’ve done okay.”

Well enough for Johnson to say England could win the 2011 World Cup? This is the only time in our conversation that the England manager bristles.

“Why would I ever say that? You only win the World Cup if you win one game and that’s the final. And if you get to the final, believe me, you concentrate on trying to win that game.”

And, if England do make that final on October 23 in Auckland, Johnson’s players will not lack any guidance as to how to make sure they win.

Meet the England squad at their Twickenham training session on August 9. Check out for more details.


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