The edifice completed by Sir Clive Woodward in 2003 quickly turned into rubble after England won the World Cup in Sydney. Champions one year, a mess the next and their unexpected appearance in the 2007 World Cup final did not disguise how far the men in white had fallen.
It was no surprise when they turned to Woodward’s first lieutenant in the first four years of this decade, Martin Johnson, to lead them out of the wilderness after another average Six Nations this year.
Johnson took over as team manager, but he is effectively head coach despite having not had any direct connection with the game since his retirement as a player after the 2003 World Cup final. He missed the June tour to New Zealand, which was probably just as well, as it saw not only two heavy Test defeats but also generated sordid allegations off the field, which were found to be groundless after a long and public inquiry.
The combination of poor performances and lurid headlines allowed Johnson to make his presence felt immediately and, after he met the players for the first time in August, a new code of conduct was hammered out. While England reflected the league, which underpinned them in terms of playing style in 2003, they did not last year.
The Premiership had grown from a tournament stuffed with attritional, unadventurous rugby to one which saw inside centre, rather than blindside flanker, as the most influential position. England’s style was more conservative, just as New Zealand’s was in 1993 when free-flowing Otago and Canterbury were showing how the All Blacks would play, and Johnson has promised a side, which will not be in his image of a chisel-faced enforcer.
One of the factors behind England’s decline after 2003 was their loss of identity. Everyone knew what they were about under Johnson: strong in the set pieces, uncompromising in the loose and defence, a strong sense
of territory and the unerring boot of Jonny Wilkinson. Jason Robinson used to sprinkle a few grains of sugar, but their game was based on not taking a step backwards.
Since then, it has been hard to deduce what England have been about. They have remained tactically rigid while lacking the forward base of old and blessed with little instinct behind.
That is set to change, not least because the ELVs will smoke them out but also because of some exceptional young backs who have made their mark on the Premiership. Danny Cipriani, who returned to action in September less than five months after suffering a serious leg injury, is the notable example, but he is only one of a number of precocious players who are not straitjacketed by fear as their predecessors were only a few years ago.
What England at the moment lack is depth in the tight five; they could do with Johnson as a player, but the variations could work to their advantage with players in the Premiership having to get used to breakdowns which are contested under the variations rather than, as used to be the case, the means for the attacking side to recycle.
Danny Cipriani returned from a serious ankle injury for Wasps on 1 October and Martin Johnson wasted no time in selecting the flyhalf after Wilkinson suffered yet another injury playing for Newcastle. Cipriani, like Jonny Wilkinson, is left-footed, but there the similarity ends.
Johnson’s first act was to omit from the squad veterans of more successful times – such as Mike Tindall, Joe Worsley and Ben Kay – players used to, and comfortable with, rigid tactics.
The new England will see backs like Danny Care and Shane Geraghty come to the fore, readers of a game who can play off the cuff. It will not mean the abandonment of structure, but it will allow players more licence.
In recent years, England have been at their weakest on turnover ball, when a set move has not been called and they have to react quickly, but it is something Cipriani, Geraghty, Toby Flood and Riki Flutey thrive on.
England will become more proactive; it is merely a question of how long it takes and while Wilkinson remains injured, it is Cipriani who is pointing the way ahead. The way Johnson and his coaching team are talking, it will be a matter of danger men, not man, even if it is time for prop Andrew Sheridan to show he is not the Graeme Hick of the rugby world.
Johnson inherited forwards coach John Wells and defence coach Mike Ford. They both came under fire during last year’s World Cup and again at the end of the Six Nations, when they survived and head coach Brian Ashton was sacked.
Wells was a coach at Leicester when Johnson was a player and another former Tiger, prop Graham Rowntree, has taken up a full-time position on the management team.
The significant addition made by Johnson is that of an attack coach. Ashton had the reputation of being the most innovative thinker in the country, but he had more success moulding young players than he
did re-educating backs who were longer in the tooth.
England reverted to type under him and Johnson turned to the former Australia and Ireland flyhalf, Brian Smith, who in three years at London Irish turned one of the dullest teams in the Premiership into one of the most attack-minded.
Smith believes that one of England’s weaknesses in the past has been an inability to react when things go wrong. ‘We will be giving players freedom,’ he said. ‘Having Plan A is no use unless you have a Plan B to back it up. You have to trust the guys on the field to make the right decisions.’
England have to strike a balance between what they have been traditionally good at – winning the ball, keeping the ball, imposing themselves at forward and kicking goals – with turning old weaknesses into strengths. While Johnson and Smith talk about width, pace, fluidity, ball retention and attacking options, the test for the men in white will be in the heat of battle.
New Zealand U20 coach, Dave Rennie, said after his side had beaten England in the Junior World Championship final this year: ‘England’s problem is that running the ball does not come naturally to them. When the pressure is on, they will revert to type and tighten up.’
The next six months will show whether he is right.