Martin Johnson primes England to square up to All Blacks
Martin Johnson has been around long enough to know that autumn is the season of English rugby optimism. The whispers drifting through the pine trees of Bagshot have been broadly similar for the last five years: this, finally, is the moment the national team are going to make Twickenham throb again. Johnson did not specifically promise as much yesterday but there was an air of quiet satisfaction about the team manager which has not always characterised his tenure.
Apart from anything else life is less fraught than it was 12 months ago when he was attempting to stitch together a front row from a pile of aching body parts.
The injury bulletin is not perfect now but it could be worse. Jonny Wilkinson, who saw a specialist in Manchester on Tuesday, does not require shoulder surgery and, according to the management, could conceivably feature at some stage during November. Simon Shaw, Riki Flutey and Hendre Fourie are all receiving treatment but have not been ruled outfor the duration either. David Wilson trained yesterday and Lewis Moody is itching to prove his match fitness for Bath at Harlequins on Sunday. Assuming he comes through, the flanker will be in pole position to reclaim the captaincy and save Johnson the task of anointing someone else.
Even the prospect of facing New Zealand, in Johnson's mind, is not quite the black hole it was a year ago. On that occasion England were stumbling to the end of a bruising series of few positives. This time they are fresh, buoyed up by their summer win over Australia in Sydney and refreshed by an infusion of talent in several key positions. Confident is not quite the word but there is a sense of a team determined to give the All Blacks a pre-World Cup hurry-up.
Training, by all accounts, was particularly fierce in the rain on Tuesday afternoon and Johnson has been stoking the fire in his players' bellies. "We've got to battle for our lives, that's what Test rugby is," he warned, having also reminded his squad that one decent summer win guarantees nothing. "Sydney was Sydney. It showed we can do it but there can't be too much of a feel-good factor. We're playing the All Blacks. You can play well and not get the result against these guys. The British and Irish guys who have beaten them in a Test match would probably fit into this room. Beating New Zealand is still probably the notch you put wherever you put your notches."
Johnson, of course, has more notches on his ammunition belt than any other English player of modern times and he appears comfortable with the idea, publicly expressed by his new chief executive, John Steele, that anything less than two wins from four games would be a disappointment.
"It's a fair comment but it doesn't change what we're trying to do," said the former World Cup-winning captain. "There is more of an expectation about our performance this year and that's fine. We want that. We're still not favourites to win this game because they're the No1 team in the world but we have to do what we say we're going to do.
"Let's take our shots, that's what we're saying. We can't ease into it for the first 25 minutes. We can't take our time getting going, otherwise it'll be too late. We don't want to be sitting in the changing room after the game saying we should have done this, we should have done that. That was the feeling we had between Perth and Sydney in June. We have to go out and play. It's not rocket science."
The precise formula to beating New Zealand, in Johnson's view, also lies in matching them in areas where they tend to blow most teams away. "We've trained very quickly and with more intensity than any game we play. We want to play with tempo and pace when we've got the ball …if we do that, we're going to get opportunities," stressed Johnson, freely admitting the All Blacks remain the benchmark for oval-ball quality.
"Why are they good? They put you under tremendous pressure with or without the ball. That's what the game is. They do the fundamentals of the game tremendously well and they have very powerful athletes and runners.
"If the All Blacks get opportunities in your third of the field they turn them into points more reliably than anybody else in the world. That's the biggest difference. They also have a huge pride in what they do and they hate to lose. They hate to let their country down and that's what it's about. I've experienced a little bit of that in my time and we have to have exactly the same, if not more."
Above all Johnson wants proof, along with everyone else, that England are on the right track. "We've got some continuity from the summer, we're not starting from square one. It's not as frustrating as this time last year. Guys will always have niggles but we've had three very constructive days. There are younger guys coming through, there are older guys in the Saxons desperate to get back in. It's a competitive environment.
"I'm happy with the squad I've got and they've got to be very hungry. We'll be a better team for playing the All Blacks. There are areas where you can attack them, like any team, and we've got to do that." Saturday week, it seems, cannot come quickly enough.