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Return of England's talisman

By Simon Austin

Martin Johnson, flanked by (left to right): Graham Rowntree, Jon Callard, Mike Ford, Brian Smith and John Wells

Martin Johnson was appointed England team manager because of his reputation as a formidable leader on the field.

Whether he can be as successful on the other side of the white line is the big question ahead of the first match of his reign on Saturday.

We know much about Johnson the captain, the man who lifted the World Cup trophy five years ago, but little about how he will approach the role of manager.

What impact do the players think Johnson has had on the England set-up so far?

SHARPENING UP THE ATTACK

Johnson has made one key addition to the coaching team he inherited from Brian Ashton.

Brian Smith was lured from London Irish to become England's attack coach in July and his influence is already clearly evident, not least in the bold selection of a pacy, exciting and inexperienced backline to face the Pacific Islanders.

HOW SMITH TRANSFORMED IRISH
Brian Smith
Appointed director of rugby at London Irish in April 2005
They finished 10th in the league in 2004/5, scoring only 28 tries
In 2005/6 they finished third, scoring 54 tries
Irish reached the semi-finals of the 2007/8 Heineken Cup

The players have been effusive in their praise of the Australian, who turned Irish from a side that struggled to cross the try line to one of the most prolific in the Premiership.

"You only have to look at the way Irish played to see the effect Brian can have on England," Toby Flood said.

"It's very exciting. We want to challenge the opposition and stretch them and Brian will be at the forefront of that. Knowing he is around is fantastic."

Jamie Noon, who will be the most experienced player in England's callow back line on Saturday, said: "Brian has been very clear and concise, which was something I think we needed.

"We have worked on some structures and attacking moves that should serve us well."

Even gnarled forward Phil Vickery admitted he had been "very impressed" with Smith.

WHATEVER IT TAKES TO WIN

Smith used to talk to his coaches and players at London Irish about "choosing good over evil".

Good was running and passing, bad was kicking and chasing. However, the 42-year-old concedes England will sometimes have to eschew such principles.

"I am under no illusions about my role with England," he said.

There are certain things we want to execute to win the game - not because people think it's sexy rugby but because it's the right thing to do

Martin Johnson

"In my role as attack coach, I am going to be pushing the boundaries, wanting us to run oppositions off their feet. But if at half-time in some game, Johnno says, 'We're playing territory in the second half', then we'll be playing territory in the second half.'"

Johnson was renowned as an arch pragmatist during his time as England skipper and he insisted things would be no different in his new guise.

"The first object is to win by scoring more points than them," he said at England's Surrey training base on Tuesday.

"That's what you play the game for. If you do it by scoring tries which are aesthetically pleasing, great. But if you go into a game thinking, 'we've got to do x, y and z to entertain the crowd', you get distracted and end up in games which, as a result, become difficult to win.

"There are certain things we want to execute to win the game, not because people think it's sexy rugby but because it's the right thing to do."

A TEAM OF LEADERS

Those who bill Johnson as England's saviour fail to realise what he is all about, according to Vickery.

"First and foremost Martin has always been a team man," he said. "When he was playing, I lost count of the number of times he said it wasn't about him as captain, but about having leaders all over the pitch.

"It's up to us as a group of players to take responsibility for ourselves. Are we training hard enough and doing all that's asked of us? And most importantly of all, are we doing everything we can on the field?"

Johnson focused on performance

On Tuesday, Johnson emphasised how important it would be for his players to "think on their feet" against the Pacific Islanders at Twickenham on Saturday.

"It will be fast and furious for the first 25 to 30 minutes on Saturday and we need to control the ball and execute properly," he said.

He then pointed out of the window in the luxurious room at Pennyhill Park and added: "It's just started to rain. That could happen during the match and we will have to adjust."

GETTING THE MESSAGE ACROSS

Communication is one of the biggest strengths of Johnson's regime, says Noon.

The 29-year-old centre, who played for England under Andy Robinson and Ashton, said: "Communication is a lot better now and it's two way.

"If you're not happy with something, you can have a word and something will happen as a result. That's been encouraged and is very reassuring."

There will be fun along the journey because Martin loves his rugby

Lawrence Dallaglio

Johnson says he has tried to ensure that he and his coaches get their messages across clearly and concisely, so as not to overload the players with information.

Leicester fly-half Toby Flood also welcomed the fact that one of the England coaches has talked to him after every game he has played for his club this season.

"You used to have to wait a while to see what was happening with England," the 23-year-old said. "Now you feel closer to the set-up and get instant feedback, which is great."

And Noon said the England camp had also been an enjoyable place to be during the last fortnight.

This might surprise some observers of the gruff and occasionally taciturn Johnson, but not his former team-mate Lawrence Dallaglio.

"There will be fun along their journey because despite his exterior, Martin loves his rugby and enjoys the company of rugby players," he said.

"If his players do things that make him happy, he will be a fun guy to be around. If they don't, he won't be."

TAKING THE JOB ON HIS OWN TERMS

It's worth remembering that Johnson will enjoy benefits that were not afforded to predecessors Ashton and Andy Robinson.

Most notably, the elite player agreement, which kicked in on 1 July, gives Johnson more time with his players than any other England coach has had.

When England run out against the Pacific Islanders at Twickenham on Saturday, they will already have been together for two weeks.

Brian Ashton
Brian Ashton was not allowed to choose his own assistants

Vickery, who has played for England under Sir Clive Woodward, Robinson and Ashton, said: "We feel we're better prepared than ever before."

Woodward had a mantra of doing "100 things 1% better" and Noon has also been impressed with Johnson in this respect.

"We've worked very hard, because Johnno is a hard task master," he said. "He looks like he's been doing it a long, long time and has got everything covered. His attention to detail is very good."

And Johnson will not be hampered by having lieutenants he did not choose nor chiefs who do not believe in him.

The RFU's management board pushed hard for his appointment in April and there is no doubt about who is in charge of the England team.

The former lock also had total control over who was in his coaching team, unlike Ashton.

Vickery said: "Martin is a natural leader and he has got a close grip on what's going on and what the coaches are doing. He's got very strong ideas. More importantly than anything else, he's got the respect of everyone on the field, be it players, coaches or doctors."

Yet, as he pertinently added, Johnson will be judged on what happens on the field, as each of his predecessors has been.

"The talk about new eras will soon have to stop and we will have to start winning because, at the end of the day, that's all that matters."



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see also
Flood applauds new Johnson regime
29 Oct 08 |  Rugby Union
Johnson lays down law to England
14 Aug 08 |  English
England 'needed Johnson example'
23 Jun 08 |  English
England's new dawn under Johnson
18 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union


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