England manager Martin Johnson knows better than anyone that talk of his team being a side “in transition” won’t wash with the nation’s rugby fans during this season’s Six Nations.
And that will certainly be the case when Italy arrive at Twickenham for the teams’ tournament opener today.
England have greater playing resources than most of their rivals, yet they haven’t won the Six Nations since then captain Johnson led them to the title in 2003 — the same year he lifted the World Cup trophy.
For this weekend’s match, tickets, unusually, had to go on public sale after clubs failed to take up their full allocation. Officials blamed the credit crunch, but the fans’ patience was tested to the limit by a trio of Twickenham losses to Australia (28-14), world champions South Africa (42-6) and New Zealand (32-6) in November, when former lock Johnson took charge of England for the first time.
England have a vast back-room staff, yet the man heading up the operation in Johnson had no coaching or rugby management experience before taking over one of the biggest jobs in world rugby union. The Pacific Islanders apart, Johnson had the toughest possible start to his managerial career after taking on the world’s three best teams. But that won’t be the case in the Six Nations.
England were off the pace at the breakdown in November and struggled to provide quick ball for their backs, where gifted but inconsistent outside-half Danny Cipriani made a number of high profile errors, in part because of a lack of options outside him.
“The autumn was a tough experience. There were some bitter disappointments and I took the losses personally,” Borthwick said.
Italy have yet to beat England, but pushed them close last year before going down 23-19. However, their lack of depth has been exposed by coach Nick Mallett’s decision to play flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half for the first time because of injuries to Pablo Cannavosio, Simon Piccone and Pietro Travaglie.
Yet it might just work. Bergamasco is a seasoned player and his new role could inspire his teammates to greater heights.