martin johnson englandWant to know exactly what Martin Johnson and Lewis Moody think of the RBS 6 Nations. No spin, no assumptions well this is the place. As we went along to the Six Nations launch and sat in front of both men for 20 mins. Here is the result:

Where is the team now to 12 months ago?

Martin Johnson: “This is quite a different team. Twelve months ago Dan Cole had not played Test match rugby, Chris Ashton hadn’t, Ben Foden hadn’t started a Test match, Ben Youngs and Shontayne Hape hadn’t started. Post autumn 2009 when we had those injuries to those guys who had been there before and been Lions, there’s been a transition. Those guys have done it with their performance. They forced their way into the team and they’re now the best players.

“People talk about World Cups and where we’ll be in seven or eight months time. Hopefully we move on a step from there as well.

“Let’s start with the first game and let’s start with the first training session in Portugal. In its own right Wales on a Friday night in Cardiff, Wales anytime in Cardiff, is a huge game. This one in particular, starting the tournament, fantastic.”

Roof open or closed against Wales?

MJ: “We haven’t made our mind up yet, we’ll look at the weather.”

Do you want to quieten crowd a little?

“When you’re away from home it’s no secret their crowd is going to be noisy. In my experience of playing I would rather play with the roof open. In terms of feel, it feels a little bit artificial when you’re playing inside. That’s me personally.”

Likely to have roof open then?

MJ: “Yeah, more likely. If the players come and say they want to play indoors then we’d do it. I don’t think we’re that fussed.”

Are the John Steele targets of finishing in the top two helpful?

MJ: “I think the chief executive calls it ‘setting realistic expectations’. The headline then becomes ‘or else’ in the newspapers. Which is fine, that’s the way it is. It doesn’t change the way we prepare, John knows that. We have these conversations and we desperately want to win every game we play in. In an ideal world we go to Ireland trying to win a championship. But March can be a long way away when you’re sat here now.

“It doesn’t change anything. We’ll still do what we do. I said to the players it sort of simplifies it if you get it right in your head.

“The bigger the game is the more the pressure is on you, just go back to what we do and do it well. Execute under that pressure, that intensity the speed, the ferocity of the game.

“If we can control the ball, which we didn’t do at times against South Africa, we don’t give it away cheaply, we defend well, then we’ll be in the game and give our players the chance to do what they do and score points.

“It’s the same with expectations and targets. What do they mean? Well we want to win games. They all come down to the same thing.

“I think John does a good job and I’m happy for him to do that (set targets). We all know the game we’re in as players and coaches. If you don’t succeed and do well then you don’t get the chance to do it for very long.”

Wales under a bit of pressure, what are you expecting from them?

MJ: “We’re all under pressure. Their playing record is what it is, it’s not been great through 2010. I’m sure they’ll come out absolutely firing and then it’s about having that control within that to execute and play and not get penalised and make errors.

“There could be an opportunity in the first five minutes to change the game. There will be opportunities. It’s a fine balance. There’s going to be a huge amount of hype leading up to it.

“For the players there will be anxiety and nerves, excitement and adrenaline, all those good things flowing. We have to control that and turn it into performance.

“There are lots of good things we need to harness. We need to turn it into positives and not mistakes and penalties and errors.”

What do you need to change from years gone by?

MJ: “I was there two years ago, I wasn’t there for the other ones when the guys lost. Two years ago we scored two tries to one, we actually played very well but got ourselves into a bit of penalty trouble and there were a couple of guys in the sin bin.

“There were some close calls that went against us in the game. But we put ourselves in a position of winning it.

“We need to control the penalty count certainly, and take those opportunities. The last two games we’ve outscored them with tries. The first game, the first 20 minutes, it’s going to be fast and frenetic and it’s just having whatever control we can get and try to take it.”

2003 you shut the crowd up didn’t you, Johnno….

MJ: “We didn’t shut the crowd up early on in 2003. Things were completely different. Wales had just come off a loss to Italy in 2003 and we were expected to win by 50 points or something ridiculous.

“When we won by 17 everyone said it was a great moral victory for Wales. There’s a very different set of circumstances to eight years ago.

“That team had that experience. It had lots of guys with 50 caps. The guys we have got with experience need to pass that on to the guys in the next two weeks who are the ones on the field, and they’ll do that.

“The things you talk about are things like belief and understanding and knowing you are going to win those close games. That team had that but you don’t get it overnight. We’ve started to get there with some of the performances we’ve put in and our understanding of what Test match rugby is all about.

“For some of our guys it’s their first time down at Cardiff but that’s no excuse. They’ve played the best teams in the world now and we need to perform.”

The players just have to deal with it don’t they?

MJ: “You have to experience it. There’s a different feeling around the game in Wales than in a lot of other places. When you’re in a hotel room in Sydney it’s different from being in Cardiff. That’s all part of it.

“When you get on the field you have to get past all that and just perform on the field. Our players understand that. It’ll be great, I’m really, really looking forward to the whole experience.”

Are your famously destructive front row licking their lips?

MJ: “Famously destructive? I don’t know where you got that from. But I think we have a pretty good front row who like to scrummage and who like to get into a pushing competition. There’s a lot spoken about the scrum and we were in a meeting last night – all the coaches. There are too many scrums that go on the floor in Test match rugby. The stats are there for all to see. The stats are there to see. Our game against Scotland last year rugby broke out occasionally between collapsed scrums.

“We’ll push but you can’t always control how many scrums there are in a game. You could go into a game with a big scrum but if you don’t get a scrum for 25 minutes where does that leave you?

“We’re going to have to play as well. It’s just another facet of the game we’ll want to compete at and get an edge.”

What areas of anxiety did you take into ref meeting?

MJ: “I didn’t have any areas of anxiety. You go and listen really more than you talk. Nothing’s really changed. I think the good thing is over the last few years there have been huge changes in this tournament in particular almost halfway through.

“But the good thing is this time around is the consistency and there’s good honest open talk about the scrum issue and wanting to keep them up. Because people don’t want to go and watch scrums re-set for half an hour of an 80 minute game. I’m comfortable with it, I’m very comfortable Graham and the way he coaches he wants the guys to stay up.

“If we go backwards then we’ll go backwards and take our medicine. We just want to be seen as a team that wants to go and scrummage and not avoid it.”

Line out weakness?

MJ: “Again you can play in games where there isn’t that many line outs and then you can play in games where there are 20 plus and it’s a huge factor in the game.

“This game two years ago it wasn’t a huge factor. We’ve lost two good players but in we’ve also got some in. George Skivington and Louis Deacon in Europe in the last few weeks have been outstanding in that area.

“The line out is a team thing. It’s great to have individual players like Tom Croft and Courtney but it’s also a team thing. I’m very comfortable with the guys we’ve got.”

Will Nick Easter captain the side?

“We’ll announce it next week.”

Is it just between Easter and Mike Tindall?

“We’ll announce it next week. Monday morning.”

Surprised Wales dropped Martyn Williams?

Moody: “Martyn’s a fantastic player, I’ve played against him a lot over the years and have a huge amount of respect for him. You can play as well as you can do over the years and then coaches make the call on whether you play or not.

“I can’t really comment on that front apart from saying he has been and still is a great player.”

Oz game it was billed as their backs against England’s forwards, Wales the same?

Johnson: “A lot of those guys have been around a long time, Shane in particular, and they’re dangerous. We’ve seen that over the past few years they can be dangerous and very instinctive.

“But that’s the challenge. I think our guys like Benny Foden, Chris Ahston and Mark Cueto are also good runners. There’s also Nick Abendanon and Dave Strettle.

“Some people have criticised the midfield but it’s also played very well. Shontayne and Mike, Ricky’s back now and Matt Banahan. We’ve got Jonny back at 10 with Toby so I’m very happy with the group of players we’ve got.”

Confident your guys are now thinking like Test players every day?

MJ: “I think they are getting there. It’s part of your development as a player. You don’t know what it’s like until you get there.

“The South Africa game in the autumn was different to the Samoa game, it’s all part of your understanding. I think our guys are getting there and you’re seeing that in their performances. They are playing well consistently week in week out most of them.

“We’re trying to get a team where you know who the England team is and you know who the England squad is. These are the best players in the country and they go and play like it every week.”

Do you have to address the physicality? Outmuscled against South Africa?

MJ: “You say we got outmuscled, I actually think we stood up pretty well. What happened in the South Africa game was that we gave them so many opportunities to attack, we gave the ball back cheaply and turned it over. If you let a team have that many starts in your half with the number of driving mauls they had at our line in the first half. They didn’t score, and I thought we defended and stood up pretty.

“What we didn’t do was hold onto the ball long enough to put the pressure back on them. When we did, we got points very quickly in the first half. We had a couple of attacks that got pushed into touch. That was the story of the game for us when we just gave the ball back too cheaply. Eventually they are going to wear you down.

“The team that scored first in that game was always going to be in the box seat. It was 9-6 to them when they scored. Before that we had a huge amount of pressure on their line, we had a penalty given to us right in front of the posts that we didn’t get an opportunity to kick. We played on, alright the ref didn’t go back for it, but we needed to be a little bit smarter there, force the issue and score points. That to me is a classic Test match when three points is huge and you can’t ignore them.

“That would have given us a chance to stay in the game with kicks. Sitting there saying we got outmuscled, well I think the guys fronted up in a fiercely competitive Test match. What we didn’t do is put the pressure back on them and these game are all about pressure. If you are playing in your half for the majority of the time, which we did, eventually they will score.”

What do the young players need to do to maintain progress?

Moody: “Like any player in the squad you have just got to keep performing and playing as well as you can do any time you get that opportunity to play. It was fantastic last year those guys who came in like Ben Foden, Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole it is such a young squad. Those guys coming through with their enthusiasm and the excitement they have for the game, I’ve said it before, it lifts everyone else. When they actually take those opportunities like they did against Australia in the autumn it’s nice to behold.

“But again, it’s about each performance and continuing that consistency.”

France say England’s their big game, what’s yours?

MJ: “Everyone says England is their big game. The French were saying it’s their big game?”

Moody: “The game that stands out most for the players is the first game because that is all you can think about. In the tournament as a whole, as Johnno said, everyone wants to beat you.

“The hunger we have to play at the Millennium Stadium, that place, with the crowd they have, is just second to none. It’s been building since that South Africa game. The frustration I have at not being able to play is massive. But guys are there now preparing. It’s why you play the game to be involved in huge encounters like the Six Nations.”

Change the way you have to play?

Johnson: “I think it’s a positive for us. You’re going into Cardiff. We’re not denying it’s a massive game, it’s huge. But that’s what you want to be a part of. You want to play the big games, you want to play in knock out games in World Cups, in grand Slam and Championship deciders. So you can’t downplay it really.

“We know what the occasion is and everyone is looking forward to it. As a player you have to be able to control those emotions. That’s what you have to be able to do, in the right way.

“Sometimes if you are a little bit flat before a game you have to find ways to pick yourself up. In a game like this it will be more to do with harnessing what they’ve got. All those good things that players will feel, the adrenaline, nerves, anxiety will be going through both sides. It’s about who can harness it and turn it into a performance on the field. There will be a huge amount of endeavour but you’ve got to have that control and execution to finish off.

“If you get into tunnel vision when you’re out there you will miss those opportunities when they are there.

“We need to have that control and understanding as best we can in chaotic situations playing Test match rugby. That’s what it’s about.”

Do two teams success in Heineken Cup influence the way you play?

MJ: “Leicester and Northampton are both fantastic clubs with fantastic programmes for players. Players who come out of those clubs have fitted well into international rugby. They work very hard and I think both clubs have a similarly tough work ethic. The guys are very passionate about their clubs. We had the players in in January and it was the build up to the Leicester v Northampton game. We had them in on the Monday and they played on Saturday. Both sets of players were really keen to go and win that game. They’re two very strong clubs.

“George Skivington has gone to Leicester and is playing very, very well. He’s had exposure to a slightly different philosophy of playing the game. He’s thrived on it.”

Is there a style that translates to Test match rugby?

MJ: “If you’re a player you have to be able to come out of the club environment and adapt to slightly different systems. They’re not dissimilar, it’s pretty easy for those guys to come and do that.

“You be too much a product of your club. You have to be able to come away with England and be a good enough player to do something slightly different. We also need to make the best use of the players we’ve got.”

ends

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