James Lawton: Manager left with one thing to cling to: his usual defiance


Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was over but the big man Martin Johnson couldn't put down certain of those things which had become the foundation stones of his rugby life.

Things like bone-deep pride in achievement on the field and the need to stand four-square with the blokes, the "adults" in whom he had invested three of the most ultimately unproductive years of a career which had for so long been programmed only for the accumulation of success, hard-won, smashed-out, unforgiving of yourself and all those around you.

In this most unwelcome of dawns in New Zealand, a place where, as a young player, he learned his first and most telling lessons about winning and losing, it was reasonable to believe that it was all wrecked now.

Johnson sat beside Rob Andrew, the RFU's professional rugby director, who, having survived the wars of Twickenham that have left the organisation as poster boys for big-time sport's maladministration, announced matter-of-factly that his recommendations on quite a few things – including the fate of Johnson – would be delivered after a month or so of "robust" appraisal.

The embattled hero showed just one flash of emotion. It came as he spoke of his belief that the England team packing its bags for home still has some claim on a brilliant future.

He said a lot of groundwork had been done and that, in players like Chris Ashton and Ben Foden and Manu Tuilagi, there were the ingredients to build a new, winning England team.

It was too soon to say that he would walk away – or that he would seek to stay, just possibly stronger at the broken places and less ready to trust in his belief that athletes called to international duty would understand their responsibilities and would always respond to an invitation to behave like professionals able to allocate a small segment of their lives to supremely concentrated effort.

Defiantly, he still reckoned that the indiscipline which so clouded the start of England's tournament, and persisted in some form or another on and off the field, contributed no more than 0.1 per cent to the disaster which arrived at such a shocking denouement here at Eden Park, when England were exposed as being powerless to stifle the rebirth of the French belief in their ability to play rugby filled with life and panache and brutal force.

Johnson insisted that a fantastic group of coaches had been assembled, a group filled with experience and knowledge and that, at the World Cup in England in four years' time, the benefits would be seen in the development of a new generation of players walking in the footsteps of Wilkinson and Shaw, Moody and Thompson.

Yet, even as Johnson voiced his defiance, a new list of contenders was taking shape out in the ether.

In some minds, it is headed by Sir Ian McGeechan, a man of the world beyond the touchlines of the game in which he has distinguished himself as a pragmatic, Grand Slam-winning coach of Scotland and of the Lions.

There is talk of the heady Springbok Nick Mallett (left), out of his time with the Italians and his more abrasive, World Cup-winning compatriot Jake White.

You hear a word, too, for Australia's Eddie Jones. All of this speculation about contenders from south of the equator is powerfully fuelled by the brilliant tournament of Wales' latest adopted Kiwi, Warren Gatland.

The trouble for the England manager is that Gatland's young and thrusting and, so far at least, hard-headed Wales have embodied almost all the qualities that Johnson's England have lacked.

Wales are being deservedly lauded here not just for their promise – the most vulnerable of assets as the tournament takes a serious turn – but for the strength and the consistency of their demeanour and their performance.

Johnson, the old loyalist, talks about the future of men like Foden and Ashton and Tuilagi. Meanwhile, the likes of Rhys Priestland and George North and Jamie Roberts and, above all, Wales' 23-year-old captain Sam Warburton announce their belief that the future might just be now.

Whatever happens in the semi-final against France, Wales have fulfilled their essential ambition. It was to come here and show the best of what they had. Johnson's misery is that England produced their worst.

They talked more about their need for a few beers than even the smallest swig of contrition.

And then, against France, their performance simply hit rock bottom. It had no hauteur or cleverness or understanding of the challenge that had been presented. It was the rawest panic.

Maybe understandably, Johnson refused to acknowledge this grim reality. He talked about the ground that had been gained, not the huge tracts of it lost.

He had a position to defend and so, of course, he did it. It was lonely work and if you had to admire him for the sheer cussed defiance of it, you could still only weep for the weakness of his case.