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Team Profile: England

Updated: Monday, 02 Feb 2009 16:16

Martin Johnson - great player but has struggled so far as coach
Martin Johnson - great player but has struggled so far as coach

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History: England have the best Six Nations record with 12 Grand Slams 25 outright wins. There have also been periods of underachievement, however, and after dominating the tournament in the early part of this decade with wins in 2001, 2002 and 2004 have now gone five years without a title. That's the longest gap since the hiatus of 1980-1991, both Grand Slam years but between which England didn't win a single title.

Coach: Martin Johnson. Johnson was a great player but the problem appears to be that he has been handed this role purely on that basis, he has no proper coaching experience, and England have faltered under his leadership thus far. Mistakes are being highlighted are there are plenty pundits and former players happy to question 'Johnno' in a way they wouldn't have dared to do on the field. The coach's position, along with team selection and a creeping celebrity culture, is currently a problem for England.

Captain: Steve Borthwick. A second row but not exactly in the Johnson mould, Borthwick is a stop-gap choice at best and everyone knows it. Difficulty in dominating from his position on the field adds up to difficulty leading and for the likes of Paul O'Connell, Borthwick will represent a target more than an opponent to be feared.

Key Men: Danny Cipriani, Riki Flutey, Mike Tindall, James Haskell

Whether he plays or not, Cipriani will be among the most talked about and pictured men at this tournament. Achieved celebrity status on the back of some highly impressive and promising performances last year, including a masterclass against Ireland, but has had difficulties with charge downs and linking with team-mates at Wasps and England. A very good rugby player and athlete, the jury is out on whether Cipriani is an out-half or not. Curiously, the most recent complete out-half performance by an England 10 was arguably Shane Geraghty's against France a couple of years ago and he hasn't really had a proper look in since.

Tindall is direct and powerful and should bring more skill to the party than Jamie Noon at 13 if used while inside him, Riki Flutey can also penetrate and pass at 12, and is more explosive. Haskell has had a good season, though Wasps have struggled as a team, and has precious power tackle busting ability that can result in good go forward ball. England's problem is mediocre standards and Tindall, Flutey and Haskell could be among the players who can fix that. Figuring out what to do with Cipriani is tougher.

Playing Style: At their worst, England have theory coming out their ears but little or no intensity – the equivalent of 'position golf' in that a video analyst might struggle to point anything out even though it is obvious that something is missing. Players like Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Johnson were able to overcome that hurdle by playing with passion but of the current group there are no such leaders. Bolder and brighter team selection may yet result in smarter rugby all round.

Prediction: England are a sleeping giant with the players to beat anyone and dominate most. The key to making it work is getting the team selection 100% right - showing anyone who doesn't fit the door. But that isn't the vibe coming from the England camp at this point and with the captain among those who ought to be unsure of his place there is an immediate stumbling block. That said, with Johnson in the dressing room the Ireland v England match at Croker should be a more intense and fiery affair than the thrashing of two years ago. Even so, defeat to Wales, France and Ireland is definitely possible – and that would mean fourth or worse.

Brendan Cole