By Ian Cole
Martin Johnson looked ahead to Englandâ€™s autumn rugby internationals and declared: â€œWeâ€™re in much better shape than a year ago.â€
Johnson, 15 months into his role as head coach and manager, was in relaxed mood as he lunched with a record number of journalists and guests for an SJA working lunch on Fleet Street, in anticipation of a trio of Twickenham friendlies against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand.
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The lunch, sponsored by UK Sport and SkyBet, was Johnsonâ€™s first chance to face the media since being handed an eight-year target of winning two World Cups and four Six Nations championships.
And Englandâ€™s 2003 World Cup-winning captain was in confident mood as he set about turning around the disappointments of the past 12 months.
Johnson said: â€œWhen I look back a year, we are far better prepared now as a coaching unit and a team. When we get everyone together we will feel more like a team than before and weâ€™ll be better placed for the challenges ahead.
â€œWeâ€™ll be judged on results, of course. If we win by a point itâ€™s fantastic, if we lose by a point itâ€™s failure.
â€œBut weâ€™re ahead of the game. We have a much more settled group of players this season. Last year we asked a bit too much of some players. We had players making their debut alongside someone who was also making his debut. If you have a settled side it is easier for newcomers to make the transition to senior level.”
He was about to leave for Paris to watch Stade Francias against Brive, though he admitted the majority of his research would have to be done on videotape.
â€œI have assured players they are still in the mix, just as they would be in the Premiership. It just makes for a bit more work. But weâ€™ve all got phones.
â€œWeâ€™d put a check on any player changing clubs, even from one Premiership club to another. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesnâ€™t. Some will think theyâ€™ve had a good experience playing in France and think itâ€™s changed their rugby. Unfortunately, some wonâ€™t.â€
As for Jonny Wilkinson, now turning out for Toulon, Johnson knows that fitness is the only pre-requisite. â€œHe had a long time out of the game, but because of his age and experience he is probably less of a problem than a younger player. I know that just an average performance from Jonny is still pretty good.â€
With Rugby 7s likely to be granted Olympic status at the IOC’s meeting in Copenhagen this week, the possibility of Johnson being involved as coach or manager of a Great Britain team in 2016 was given short shrift. â€œIâ€™m a traditionalist. I like to see 15 guys doing battle against 15. But 7s is a good spectacle, which is what the Olympics is about. So I can imagine certain players relishing the chance to play in an Olympic Games, with the chance to win a gold medal.â€
The England team seemed to be in good hands. Separated only by a dish of lasagne, one scribe meeting the Leicester colossus for the first time observed: â€œWell, you wouldnâ€™t argue with him, would you?â€
Martin Johnson, England’s rugby manager, is presented with his framed original Macey cartoon by SJA chairman Barry Newcombe
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