Stuart Abbott

The Johnson revival

2008-09-05 05:46

Stuart Abbott

For me, the most significant rugby news in the last few weeks has been the acknowledgment by the RFU that Brian Ashton is not the man best equipped to be entrusted with guiding England through to the next Rugby World Cup.

The appointment of Martin Johnson as England's rugby supremo has substantial implications, not only for England, but also for the entire rugby world.

The bottom line is that people who have been cynical about England as an international rugby force may well be forced to change their mindset in the near future.

"Little or no coaching and management experience", critics may say, "it's just too different from playing or captaining a team", they may opine.

But I think those nay-sayers may well be wide of the mark in assessing his likelihood of success.

Perennial winner

Martin Johnson was my 2003 World Cup captain and few men I've ever met have made as indelible an impression on me as Martin. He has a powerful presence and possesses astute leadership. He manages, better than almost anyone I know, to marry cogent self-belief and genuine modesty. He offers a perspicacity of judgment of people and situations, on and off the field, which has to give him a huge shot at success at big-time coaching and man-management.

Martin is a perennial winner, having been an integral part of two Heineken Cup wins, four Premierships, three Grand Slams, two Six Nations and a World Cup, and other great triumphs for England and the British Lions. I'd be surprised indeed if he were not able to carry that success through to England's international fortunes.

The mid-year Tests are likely to favour the southern hemisphere nations again, not least those in South Africa. This despite those players having to adapt from playing ELV rugby in the Super 14 to the "old" laws in the mid-year Tests, before going back to the ELVs for the Tri-Nations after playing the Home Unions.

Farcical England tour

This is not ideal from any point of view and once again raises the necessity for the IRB to give serious consideration to a global season, or at least the IRB introducing law changes uniformly throughout the world.

Wales and Italy will be at the end of a long season when they tour South Africa, but one hopes they will tour with their strongest teams, unlike the farcical England tour to SA in June last year.

If Peter de Villiers can persuade Jake White's experienced players to remain within the Bok fold - and indeed if he selects them - they should beat both Wales and Italy.

Nick Mallett is as sharp a coach as any in the world, incisive in his analysis, and he knows the Springbok strengths and weaknesses better than most. But while his players may give the Boks a fright, they can surely not beat the Boks. As a caveat one should add - barring an unsettled Bok squad under their new coach that is.

Warren Gatland may well out-think a new Springbok coaching regime who are all new to Test rugby and just learning to work together. It'll take a while for the new coaching team to gel as strategists, and in their ideas on the execution of what may be conflicting gameplans.

Battle for parity

The Six Nations champions may well give the world champions a rough ride. But at their best I believe SA should win well, though it'll come as a happy surprise if the Boks are in fine fettle as they adapt after four years of familiarity with their trusted mentor Jake White.

If Wales meet a rejuvenated skipper in John Smit, a reunited second row combination of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger and Juan Smith back together as a flank duo, plus the likes of Fourie du Preez, Francois Steyn and Bryan Habana anywhere near their potent best behind them, the Six Nations champs will battle for parity.

But never discount the united, happy team the Welsh will bring on tour, if indeed they bring their full strength team, against the uncertainty and insecurity of an untested Bok coaching leadership.

The two Bok v Wales Tests will be fascinating, particularly as an indication of where both countries are headed. In my view the one has superior players, the other the superior coaches.


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