Martin Johnson on Wales, England, Eddie Jones, RBS Six Nations and the class of 2003
England, Lions and Leicester legend, Martin Johnson, talks to the Rhino Locker Room about the reign of Eddie Jones, RBS Six Nations, Welsh starlet Sam Davies, England’s tighthead shortage and what made the class of 2003 click…
It might not have been great to watch, but it was great to win.
Whenever you play France at Twickenham in the RBS Six Nations it’s always tough. If France keep on playing like that, with that set of physical forwards, they are going to be a real handful and I think this win will look a lot better in two or three games’ time. Because England have been winning, people expect them to win comfortably, but I think, given the circumstances, this win will appear better later. It wasn’t great to watch, but it’s always great to win.
England are in a good place
I think the difference with this England team is the experience, the core has been around for two world cups and are experienced. You’ve got a few 50-plus cappers, like Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, James Haskell, Courtney Lawes, Mike Brown, Ben Youngs… and even the likes of Owen Farrell and George have been to one world cup. Then to that core has been added some new, younger guys like Anthony Watson, it’s a good place for England to be.
The unbeaten run doesn’t mean anything
I always think with England, every game is a new game. They’ll have been back in this week, reviewed last week, moved on to Wales, that’s it. The guys are used to moving after a win now. I’ve always seen the RBS Six Nations as a series of individual games rather than a Championship, each game has its own character. They won’t be thinking about the unbeaten run, there’s always pressure on England either way.
They say England can’t play in Wales, but our record isn’t that bad
In the RBS Six Nations, we won in 2015, lost in 2013, but won in 2011 and there have probably been some warm-up games among that, too. We did have a run before where we lost three on the trot, but a lot of the guys in this England side have won there and our record isn’t as bad as it's made out to be.
The Millennium Stadium is a fantastic place to play, I always enjoyed playing there – I don’t think I lost there
The whole country wants to beat you
It’s a big game in every context and whoever wins it, will get the spoils, be top of the table, and it’s going to be an occasion – it always is. The Millennium Stadium is a fantastic place to play, I always enjoyed playing there – I don’t think I lost there, although I only played a few times there [four games in Cardiff, two in Millennium Stadium – four wins]. As Englishmen, Wales want to beat you – the whole country wants to beat you.
A side in transition
I think Wales are a little bit in transition, they had a lot of guys who'd been around for a very long time, and some players are now starting to go. Alun Wyn Jones is still there, Jonathan Davies too, Jamie Roberts on the bench, Leigh Halfpenny… they’ve still got enough experience and know-how and danger out wide too. Davies, Liam Williams, George North – if you let them have space, they’ll make you look bad.
Former England team-mates Tim Rodber, Martin Johnson and Richard Cockerill
England will have to watch Sam Davies
I think Sam Davies is interesting, he’s quite lively and you have to watch him. England will try and get him under pressure because he is a new player, and it’s one thing coming off the bench into a Test match – it’s a good way to get initiated – but it’s another to start a game. That first 35 minutes is absolutely frantic. You saw how quick and athletic the England forwards were when they came on, it’s because they didn’t have an hour of the ground in their legs, they hadn’t been smashing around for an hour.
People said he [Itoje] isn’t the same player, but he is, he’s just in a different position. I'd play him in the second row because he's such an athlete
Itoje should be in the second row
England had some players coming back from injury, some who hadn’t played much in certain positions, so it was quite a bitty team. Dylan had to start as the captain – Joe Marler – was coming back from a broken leg and Maro Itoje was at six. People said he isn’t the same player, but he is, he’s just in a different position. I’d put him in the second row because he’s such an athlete and all backrows are athletes anyway, so you need to get as many of them on the pitch as possible.
Thank Stuart Lancaster for Farrell
Owen Farrell is going from strength-to-strength as a player, he was criticised at the start of his England career, but now he’s played every week to a high standard. He’s been with England for four or five years and I think he’s reaching a real, top-class level. I think Stuart Lancaster should be given credit for having faith in him, even when results weren’t always good.
When Eddie played for Leicester
Yeah, I know Eddie Jones, he came to Leicester in 1991 [he played three games], he’s one of those guys who’s been around forever. He’s been one of the bigger characters in world rugby for 15 years or so. Who’d have thought he’d come in and then England wouldn’t lose for a year? He didn’t start that great, performance-wise, they were taking their first steps, but they managed to win and he kept them ticking over. It’s good if people can be critical when you're winning every game, and they’ve done that. Eddie has done a great job, he’s given those guys belief in what they’re doing, he’s given them the confidence to find a way to win. They were behind against France and they weren’t the best team, they were in a right battle, but they found a way to come back and win. Everyone thought they would do it too, which is a sign of a good side.
There are so many fantastic Test teams that didn’t win a world cup and they get forgotten
England not ‘great’ just yet
You’ve got to think about what England have got in the ‘win’ column. They went to Australia and won, which takes some doing. Then they came back and, while they weren’t a great side, they beat the South Africans. You want to see them go full team versus full team against the All Blacks now. They’ve got to keep doing what they’re doing, but to be considered great you’ve got to get to the Rugby World cup and do something there. There are so many fantastic Test teams that didn’t win a Rugby World Cup and they get forgotten, but England are going in the right direction.
They’ve had the same two scrumhalves for a while now – where is the next No.9 coming from? If someone gets injured, can we trust him to play in the biggest arena?
Tightheads and scrum-halves need to step up
What Eddie would probably like to see is a few more people in key positions coming through. They’ve had the same two scrumhalves for a while now – where is the next No.9 coming from? If someone gets injured, can we trust him to play in the biggest arena? Likewise at tighthead, ideally we’d have more – ideally we’d have five – but it’s a difficult position to fill, so we’d want at least two or three. You can get plenty of guys coming in to cover the backrow, but you can’t just get someone to cover at tighthead, it’s too difficult. Who’s playing tighthead if Dan Cole gets injured? But none of this is on Eddie, it’s on those players on the fringes to step up.
The cutting edge of 2003 England
It wasn’t one thing that made the 2003 click, it was everything. A lot of the players were in the team that went out in the 1990 quarterfinals, but they didn’t quite have the same cutting edge as the 2003 side. Jason Robinson made a lot of difference, Ben Cohen became world class, Will Greenwood was fit and healthy and Jonny had been around a lot longer as a player by then. We had far more to offer in the backline. The forwards weren’t that different really, although Steve Thompson’s ball carrying made a difference.
Rugby World Cup winners need to have everything
You need everything to win a Rugby World Cup, you need all the different types of players, you need grit, experience and you need to be able to face any challenges. England plays lots of games in the winter, but then you have to go and play in a completely different hemisphere and still win. Your team has to be able to handle whatever is thrown at it, that’s what makes a Rugby World Cup winning side.