Thursday, January 28, 2010

Martin Johnson cagey over Six Nations but hails his strongest England

A tight defence is an essential tool of modern Test rugby and the give-em-nowt attitude is proving contagious. If this year's Six Nations is anything like as flat and predictable as the management-speak which suffocated the launch at London's Hurlingham Club, it could be a grey old championship, lacking not only Bill McLaren's presence but the pilot light of sporting romance on which the event traditionally relies.

There were notable exceptions – Italy's Nick Mallett can hold forth entertainingly on most subjects in almost as many languages – but the days of rash predictions and ambitious statements of intent are gone. Even Wales's Warren Gatland stuck to his recent pledge to say nothingremotely provocative, blaming the assembled media for prompting this grim state of affairs. When it started raining at the precise moment the national captains were led outside for their photocall, it simply mirrored the lack of sparkling insight indoors.

Such is life, sadly, in a results-driven business of deflationary margins. England, for example, lost to Ireland and Wales by a combined total of nine points last season and, as Martin Johnson observed, "anyone who predicts who will win the title is a brave guy". Such people as Johnson, Declan Kidney and Andy Robinson did not get where they are today by confidently anticipating grand slam glory before a ­single ball has been kicked.

Nor did Johnson shed much further light on the issue of the England captaincy which, as things stand, is as clear as Severn estuary mud. Steve Borthwick will lead the side out against Wales on Saturday week but Johnson is declining to clarify what will happen beyond that. "Steve's our captain," was as far as he would go. "He does a tremendous job but if you're reliant on any one player it's a weakness. I'd like to think there are three or four guys with leadership qualities." As a distinguished former England captain himself, Johnson is keen to demystify the role but is in ­danger of doing the precise opposite.

Johnson also repeated his belief that this is "the strongest England squad we've had in my time here". That is not quite the same as predicting a first English title since 2003 but it remains the view within the red rose camp that a record of two injury-hit defeats in three autumn series games masked a greater sense of collective purpose. If England can beat Wales, by hook or by crook, they will fancy being at least competitive in Rome and Edinburgh. In that event, the last two games against Ireland and France would assume a very different hue.

As Gatland correctly identified England must first put together a pack capable of seizing next week's game by the scruff. "I am happy with our experience in the front five," said Gatland, optimistic that his Lions front-rowers Adam Jones and Matthew Rees, only recently back from shoulder and groin injuries respectively, will be on parade. "The next couple of weeks [leading into the England game] are pretty critical for us. Games are won up front, and it is important that our tight five fronts up. We're just hoping it will be the catalyst for our season as it was two years ago."

France, conversely, are hoping to avoid what their coach, Marc Lièvremont, called the "catastrophe" of their heavy defeat at Twickenham 12 months ago. As with Ireland and Wales they have the advantage of three home games this year; three of their fixtures will also be evening affairs, including a Friday night date against Wales in Cardiff on 26 February. Scotland will be their opening opponents in Edinburgh and Robinson, about to embark on his first Six Nations campaign since he ceased to be England's head coach in 2006, is already relishing the challenge ahead, calling on his players "to inspire a nation".

The pre-tournament favourites, though, continue to be Ireland, seeking to add to the long-awaited grand slam they secured last year. "You just hope it's going to be your time again," said Brian O'Driscoll, entering his eighth Six Nations as Ireland's captain and reluctant to look beyond his side's opening fixture against Italy at Croke Park. "We're owed nothing in this Six Nations. You don't retain anything. You give it back and then you try and win it again. We need to start from scratch. It will be the same attitude we've had for the past 10 years. You try and build into a competition, you don't win it in the first couple of weeks. That's how you lose it."

Ireland V Wales Hospitality

England V Ireland Hospitality

Italy V England Hospitality

France V Ireland Hospitality

Six Nations Hospitality

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