Keith Wood believes England are suffering from a lack of star players and insists it will take all of Martin Johnson’s fabled leadership skills to change their fortunes.
England have been installed fourth favourites for the RBS 6 Nations following an abysmal autumn that reached its nadir with record defeats by South Africa and New Zealand.
A kind opener against Italy at Twickenham on Saturday presents an early chance to restore morale but Ireland and Lions great Wood envisages a gruelling championship for the World Cup finalists.
For all their injuries and off-field setbacks Wood, brand ambassador for Bushmills Irish Whiskey, claims it is the shortage of world-class operators that will undermine their progress.
“England have had a lot of problems and many injuries. As a team they’re in a really hard place,” said the former Ireland skipper.
“It’s difficult for a new coaching team to deal with an England side that is shy of stars.
“There are a lot of good players but there are no great players. Just look at 2003 when they won the World Cup – there were so many great England players in that team.
“But there’s a dearth of great England players at the moment and that makes life very difficult for them. It’s their greatest shortcoming right now.
“Part of the problem is that in Britain and Ireland there are too many Antipodeans playing in our leagues.
“The club and provincial teams are getting better but the pools for the international teams are shrinking.”
Johnson has endured a difficult baptism to international rugby management, with the abysmal results on the pitch making the recent controversies off it in even harder to stomach.
Besieged from all directions, Wood believes England’s World Cup-winning captain will have to drive the team forward through force of personality alone.
“Martin is the right man for the job and I have huge respect for him,” said the former Ireland hooker, a Lions tourist with Johnson in 1997 and 2001.
“He’s in a very difficult position and really needs to show all of his leadership qualities to take England out of the position they’re in.
“If there isn’t the leadership greatness on the field, he needs to show a lot off it to get the most out of his team.
“England at the moment is a tough job for Martin, but it would be a tough job for anybody.
“As a player Martin was the man who led England to their greatest success, you would hope he’s the right man to do it as a manager as well.”
Captain Steve Borthwick has borne the brunt of the criticism directed at England but Wood, capped 58 times by Ireland, believes he is operating in challenging circumstances.
“It’s tough on Steve because he’d be a finer captain if he had four or five other guys who you could hang your hat on within the team,” Wood said.
“Martin Johnson would be the first to say that what made him an exceptional captain were his lieutenants.
“Lawrence Dallaglio, Matt Dawson, Will Greenwood, Jason Leonard and Neil Back could have led the side in his absence.
“Captain is important but it’s also often over-rated. You need to delegate and share the responsibility.”