James Lawton: Now RFU must repair the damage created in Johnno's ill-starred reign

 

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the end, Martin Johnson did what he had to do. He looked at his situation, saw how the meaning of his life in rugby had been so reduced by his failure to understand the values and priorities of a new generation of England players and decided that already he had made too many compromises.

Johnno the coach, the man required to lead one step removed from the trenches, was always a huge gamble, an investment in the mysteries of aura and example. And whatever patchwork of survival might have been created for him in the wake of the appalling World Cup experience, it would surely not have been enough to underpin his old sense of who he was and the kind of honour he carried from a superbly competitive playing career.

Whoever replaces him, whether it is the proven old winner, and sports politician, Sir Clive Woodward or some hard-driving candidate yet to be announced, there is no doubt where the new man's priority must lie.

It is in imposing new levels of discipline and priorities in a squad which proved itself psychologically unfit for purpose in New Zealand.

Certainly it is not hard to identify the central weakness of Johnson's regime, quite apart from a general belief that his coaching squad was in need of some serious refreshing and that it was a huge reach in the modern technocrat game to install a man who had no practical experience of running a team, any team.

You had to know Johnson was in trouble the moment he announced that England's World Cup campaign would in some respects go back to the time when a rugby tour was for many of its participants a chance to re-enact some of the more extravagant moments of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.

No, England didn't raze Queenstown to the ground, but they did behave in a way that separated them from any serious consideration as a unit plainly programmed to produce their best rugby.

Johnson said there would be no curfews and no restrictions on Wags. He said he was in charge of a group of blokes and adults, and if you worried about this, he did offer the reassurance that if his trust was betrayed he would then have to make some decisions of his own.

Unfortunately he didn't, not even after the England campaign had become a laughing stock. Johnson's last chance was to make a stand. Instead, the anarchy developed.

Of course, by falling on his sword Johnson has in one sense merely underlined the chronic confusion that grips the Rugby Football Union. It has more reviews than the New York Times book supplement but with little or no indication that it is in danger of getting to the heart of its problems. Now, at least it has the chance to draw some kind of rough line in the quagmire.

It has to look at both its organisation and its psychology. It has to forget the remnants of that triumphalism which came with the World Cup victory of 2003 and the remarkable arrival, against all the odds, in the 2007 final in Paris. It has to see that not only has it failed – that can happen – but in the process it has been exposed quite profoundly in its lack of understanding of the challenge.

Rob Andrew has come to rival the old Mafia chieftain John Gotti for the title of Teflon Man. He sat, at an appropriate distance, beside Johnson on the morning after the World Cup dismissal and you could only marvel at the level of escapology as Johnson growled his defiance under the weight of the heaviest criticism.

There is one imperative facing the man who takes over from Johnson. It is to re-shape the mentality of the England squad. It is to carry it into the realm of serious competition, where a trip to the World Cup is not some laddish adventure.

Also, of course, there is the requirement of another kind of authority, the one which comes with a proven coaching record at the highest level. Johnson thought it was a small step from the kind of leadership he imposed in the heat of the action.

Now the Rugby Football Union has to start repairing the damage that it did so much to create. A little humility might provide a profitable start.

Comments