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Page last updated at 00:08 GMT, Sunday, 23 November 2008

Honeymoon over for Johnson

By Phil Harlow
BBC Sport at Twickenham

Danny Cipriani and James Haskell

It was not supposed to be like this.

When the revered Martin Johnson took the England job, it was meant to be a new start, a big black line drawn under years of underachievement since the 2003 World Cup triumph.

With a new agreement in place between the clubs and the Rugby Football Union and a promising new generation of players - headed by Danny Cipriani - in tow, the future was thought to be bright.

But just three games into the new era, the unwelcome sound of boos were already ringing around Twickenham at full-time after a humiliating record home defeat by South Africa, leaving Johnson to use words like "desolate" in his post-match interviews.

Johnson is quickly finding out that his peerless achievements as a player do not necessarily translate to coaching a Test team.

His press conference after the game was a strangely muted affair for the coach of a team which had just suffered the worst home defeat in its history. Perhaps Johnson the player and the man is held in just too much esteem to be put on the rack so early into his reign.

"I thought the effort was fantastic, they kept going all the way through the game," said Johnson, who is in his first job as a coach.

"They are learning the brutal and harsh lessons of rugby at this level against a world champion side, and there's no point in me saying that 42-6 doesn't reflect the play. It does, it's the score and we have to live with it."

If Brian Ashton or Andy Robinson had come out with that after such a result, it is fair to suggest they might have been given a rougher ride.

Johnson has decided to go with youth and repeatedly stressed that the players in his elite squad are the best at his disposal.

But that might be the root of the problem for England and Johnson: perhaps the players are just not as good as we think they are.

How many of England's XV would have got near a place in South Africa's side? Or England's 2003 World Cup-winning line-up?

Phil H - BBC Sport
Fair enough, they are a work in progress, but the signs do not look promising at the moment especially with a match against an in-form All Blacks side, who are looking to clinch a Grand Slam tour, just a few days away.

"It's part of what we're about as a team and what you have to go through as a team to get to where you want to be," said Johnson.

"There's no players with 50 caps coming over the hill as the cavalry this is our squad and we back them.

"They all make mistakes at times and they all did some good things."

England did do some good things, but there is no reward on the scoreboard for half-breaks or stolen line-out ball teams have to make these instances count, and England simply did not.

In contrast, the Springboks came away with something almost every time they got near England's 22.

Much of the talk after the match was about "learning lessons" and "taking the positives" an increasingly familiar mantra for the modern-day sportsman.

"We want to be better and we want to improve," said captain Steve Borthwick, who is beginning to resemble the valiant Martin Corry in having to front up to the media after another England defeat.

"All we can do is work hard, study the tape of what happened and put it right next week."

"People will pick holes but we're a collective and we're trying to build towards something special," added flanker James Haskell.

"When you're building towards something, you are going to take knocks and we have to learn from these occasions. I'm excited about being involved in this team."

But Haskell did concede that England fans paying top dollar for their tickets might struggle to see the "special" destination the team was heading towards.

"We hold our hands up we're not deluding ourselves," he said.

"We know this wasn't good enough. We won't go back to Pennyhill Park, slap each other on the back and say 'better luck next time'. We'll work as hard as we can to put this right."

The distressing thing for England though, is that many of their problems came from basic errors. The number of handling errors and misplaced passes would have a Colts coach tearing his hair out surely international players do not need to "learn" the importance of executing basic skills properly.

For a team filled with so many young players, the sound of the boos echoing around Twickenham something Johnson almost certainly never experienced as a player may take some time to leave their skulls.

But Johnson has just a matter of days to get his players ready to face the best team in the world. This coaching lark is not all it is cracked up to be.

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see also
Johnson says defeat was 'brutal'
22 Nov 08 |  English
Johnson is right man - Woodward
22 Nov 08 |  English
Sheridan to miss Springbok Test
20 Nov 08 |  English
South Africa forced into changes
20 Nov 08 |  Rugby Union
Scrum must 'step it up' - Mears
19 Nov 08 |  English
Flanker Haskell back for England
18 Nov 08 |  English
Jeremy Guscott column
17 Nov 08 |  Rugby Union
England 14-28 Australia
15 Nov 08 |  English
Scotland 10-14 South Africa
15 Nov 08 |  Rugby Union
England 6-15 South Africa
20 Oct 07 |  Rugby Union

related bbc links:

related internet links:
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

The Times Johnson hints at long-term plan - 38 hrs ago
The Times England manager drops hint at long-term plans - 41 hrs ago
Telegraph England recall James Haskell for South Africa clash at Twickenham - 47 hrs ago
Sky Sports Boks challenge excites Haskell - 48 hrs ago
Telegraph England recall Haskell - 50 hrs ago


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