Six Nations 2020: England must improve on World Cup form, says Martin Johnson

By Matt HobbsBBC Sport
Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson steered England to Six Nations triumphs as a head coach, second row totem and captain
Guinness Six Nations 2020
Dates: 1 February-14 March
Coverage: Watch live coverage on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, Connected TVs and online; listen to match commentaries, shows and podcasts on BBC Radio 5 Live, Sports Extra and BBC Sounds; follow text coverage on the BBC Sport website and mobile app; further coverage available in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Full coverage details.

Martin Johnson knows a thing or two about winning the Six Nations. His five titles as an England player included three as captain. He had an 84% win ratio in the tournament from 37 matches on the field and won the 2011 championship as head coach off it.

So when the 2003 World Cup winner says that for the current England team to win a 29th trophy they will need to better their "best-ever" performances in 2019 that saw them dominate New Zealand on the way to a World Cup final, and crush Ireland away from home in the Six Nations, it is worth paying close attention.

The 84-cap veteran's logic is simple - England start their campaign with two away games, in France and then Scotland, having lost at the Stade de France and Murrayfield in back-to-back games in 2018.

A home defeat by Ireland in England's final fixture followed in 2018 and it is Ireland who England will face in their third match of this year's tournament.

England's Six Nations fixtures
Sunday 2 February (15:00 GMT)France (a)
Saturday 8 February (16:45)Scotland (a)
Sunday 23 February (15:00)Ireland (h)
Saturday 7 March (16:45)Wales (h)
Saturday 14 March (16:45)Italy (a)

At the end of those three fixtures two years ago, England finished the Six Nations in fifth, their worst return since 1987. As starts go, Johnson's analysis of "tough" could be seen as an understatement.

"England's worst-case scenario is they play a fired-up French, fired-up Scottish, and fired-up Irish team in their first three games," said the BBC Sport rugby expert. "England have got to put every game away because every game is a challenge.

"The difficult thing in a Six Nations is you're in a dog fight, you're playing teams who desperately want to beat you. Sometimes you need to win a game, however you win it.

"It's a big tournament for England to establish themselves. If they play poorly and get beaten in Paris, all that good stuff from the World Cup is gone very quickly."

England on 'red alert' for France

France squad
France's initial 42-man squad selection had an average age of just 24

Johnson believes England's "best rugby is ahead of them" and that they must "put the World Cup behind them" to be ready for their opening match against a much-changed France.

New head coach Fabien Galthie has selected a squad featuring 19 uncapped players, with England counterpart Eddie Jones questioning the lack of experience on show.

Johnson started his Five Nations career with a 16-15 home victory against France in 1993, but three career losses in Paris mean the former England captain expects a fierce contest. He says victory will not make England title favourites.

'If you could pick one player from another nation to be in your squad, who would it be?'

"You're playing a French team in France and that should never be underestimated," he adds. "I'd be on red alert if I was England going to Paris. If they've got a whiff of regaining the love of the rugby public, they could be fantastic."

Shaun Edwards also begins his tenure as France's defence coach following 12 years with Wales, which featured four Six Nations titles and three Grand Slams.

The credit for their clean sweep last year could largely be placed at Edwards' door given Wales conceded just seven tries all tournament and scored only 10.

However, Johnson questioned whether a disciplined defensive system will suit France.

"It will be interesting to watch because they don't march to the beat of the same drum," he said. "They seize things differently and react differently and that makes it exciting.

"Professional rugby with its rigidity and patterns, I don't know if it suits them. They can be inexplicably good and inexplicably bad."

Fortress Murrayfield

Huw Jones
Centre Huw Jones, who scored two tries in Scotland's win over England in 2018, has been recalled to Gregor Townsend's squad after missing out on the World Cup

England then travel to Murrayfield knowing they could go three Six Nations matches against Scotland without victory for the first time since 1984.

Johnson said Scotland "knocked England about" during their 25-13 win two years ago, while England have lost four of their last six away matches in this tournament.

The home fixture with Ireland follows. The 2018 Grand Slam champions are one of four nations with a new head coach, former England assistant Andy Farrell, and could be chasing a Triple Crown if they win their opening two matches at the Aviva Stadium against Scotland and Wales.

England must meet fire with fire, according to Johnson. "England have got to set their standards higher again, and go after them," he added.

England will be 'in the cross hairs' of rivals

England's shaky away form in the Six Nations has not prevented Jones from beginning the build-up to this tournament in trademark style, claiming his side want to be "the greatest team the world has ever seen".

Could such comments motivate rivals? Johnson respects the sentiment, but said it is "the kind of thing other teams might put up on a noticeboard".

"In a way, where else would we want to be? There's no point trying to be the 13th best team ever, but it's a grandiose statement. When you hear it, you think if you're 7-0 down after five minutes in Paris on a February afternoon, it doesn't sound too good. There's a risk you fall flat on your face but why not have a go at it?"

Saracens salary-cap scandal will not affect England

Saracens Maro Itoje, Jamie George, Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell
Saracens' Maro Itoje, Jamie George, Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell all started November's World Cup final against South Africa

Jones' comments may have been at least partly aimed at deflecting headlines surrounding the Saracens salary-cap scandal, but Johnson believes it will not have a detrimental impact on England's performances, or the seven players from Saracens selected, including captain Owen Farrell.

"You don't bring your club stuff to the national thing," said the former Leicester Tigers second row. "You don't sit there in the corner and start moaning about who beat who.

"It's unprecedented; I'm not saying it's a minor issue. For some players there will be uncertainty, but not much grabs your attention like playing Test match rugby.

"I've never gone onto a field wondering if I've left the oven on. I was thinking you've got to be fully focused otherwise you're going to get embarrassed."

England's dynamic duo

Tom Curry and Sam Underhill
Tom Curry and Sam Underhill could be key for England's Six Nations hopes

If England are to win a first title since 2017 much may rest on the performances of Bath's Sam Underhill and fellow flanker, Sale's Tom Curry. Johnson lauded their performances at the World Cup and said such is their impact on England's back row, they can offset the loss of the injured Billy Vunipola.

"The biggest thing in the last year for England has been Curry and Underhill," he said. "To do what they did was pretty special; to play the level they did so quickly has been done by very few players."

He also said the "new voices" in England's evolving backroom staff, including England Sevens boss Simon Amor and Matt Proudfoot, who coached South Africa's scrum during their World Cup triumph, can help "freshen up" an England team who remain favourites despite winning just three times in their last eight Six Nations matches.

Do recent results that mean they have a point to prove?

"You've always got a point to prove when you play rugby: that is, who is the best?" Johnson added. "Whatever happened last week, if you turn up and lose, it's horrible. Every team has a point to prove. You've got to win."

Martin will be working for BBC Sport on its live TV coverage of the Six Nations, which begins with Wales v Italy on Saturday followed by France v England on Sunday.

Top Stories

More from the Six Nations

Elsewhere on the BBC