Chris Hewett: England journey into uncharted waters with novice at the helm

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The Independent Online

Eleven years ago, when Ian McGeechan awarded the captaincy of the South Africa-bound British and Irish Lions to Martin Osborne Johnson, thereby giving the menacing lock forward a first chance to test his leadership skills in the international arena, the coach explained his thinking this way: "I want someone of stature, in every sense of the word. When it's time for us to knock on the door of the Springbok dressing room for the pre-match formalities, I think it's a good idea to have someone like him doing the knocking."

It was not difficult to see McGeechan's point at the time, and as it turned out, Johnson was indeed mightily effective on that victorious tour – not in a loquacious sense, for the likes of Keith Wood and Lawrence Dallaglio had far more to say for themselves, but in the way he stoked the fires of the collective spirit when the Boks went after the tourists in Cape Town and Durban; the manner in which he navigated his way through contests so pressurised that he took days to recover from the exhaustion, mental as well as physical.

Martin Johnson: a career in pictures

Few of his peers doubt for a second that he will make a decent hairy great fist of the new role. Yesterday, the most decorated player in the annals of the English game, Jason Leonard, described Johnson as "a pretty terrific figure" whose mastery of his sport would help him plot a course towards a strong showing in the 2011 World Cup. "He's not one of life's good lookers – he has a forehead like a drive-in movie theatre," the former prop said, rehearsing one of his more intriguing smiles. "But he was never just a second-row idiot. He was one of the most astute players I ever met. The guy knows a lot of rugby."

Yet the deeds Johnson performed so well in the red shirt of the Lions, and, more famously still, in the white shirt of England between 1999, when Dallaglio contracted a severe dose of the tabloids, and 2003, when he completed his final act as an international player by hoisting the World Cup towards the night sky over Sydney, are not so easy to emulate in a manager's blazer or, God forbid, in a coach's tracksuit. (The new man has yet to give hands-on instruction to the local Under-8s at Wigston RFC, let alone a group of fully-fledged professionals). These are uncharted and treacherous waters for him, and those Rugby Football Union grandees who persuaded him to set sail on them are only guessing that he can keep a steady hand on the tiller. Just as Johnson himself is guessing.

He might, like Neil Back and Graham Rowntree, his old fellow Lions from Leicester, have turned to coaching on retirement. He did anything but. Since his last serious game of rugby in 2005, he has spent his time on the corporate-media-dinner circuit, making a mint for himself and raising another few hundred thousand for his chosen charities. It was generally thought that when he felt ready to re-commit himself to the sport that gave him his fame and fortune, he would do it at Welford Road, where he made more than 300 appearances for the Tigers between the 1988-89 and 2002-03 campaigns. It seemed an obvious fit – or rather, an obvious refit.

So what happened? Some say Johnson was so sickened by England's spineless performance against the Springboks in the pool stage of last year's World Cup – a match they lost heavily without troubling the scorers – that he decided there and then to offer his services in the national cause. But well after that fixture, at a gathering to launch the build-up to next year's Lions tour of South Africa, he openly admitted to being ill-equipped for any meaningful role in the England set-up, adding that it would be the "height of arrogance" to think otherwise.

Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby who has spent the last few weeks courting Johnson, has yet to explain how and why he came to make his approach. As recently as last Christmas, he had recommended that Brian Ashton remain as head coach, describing his partnership with him as "very much a long-term project", and it is tempting to point out that if this new project is similarly long-term, Johnson will be out of a job before England play a Test match under his supervision. He may be a big name in a big body, but when RFU types turn on a man, they do it with a vengeance.

Throughout the shabby exercise in mismanagement that ended in yesterday's confirmation of Ashton's demise, Johnson did not breathe a word to anyone. He left the talking to those in his "camp" who briefed and leaked like so many back-bench New Labourites in fear of losing their precious seats, and they did it so effectively that by last week, their man's appointment had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leicester, exasperated for many years by the concentration of Bath coaches in the England operation – Jack Rowell, Clive Woodward, Andy Robinson, Ashton – have long recognised the value of wielding influence at the top end of the national game. Now, they have their chief executive, Peter Wheeler, on the RFU's management board and Johnson as manager of a coaching team already featuring old Tigers in Rowntree and John Wells.

If that sounds like a conspiracy theory, well, why not? It is the tenor of the times at Twickenham. Watch yourself, Martin. Conspiracies cut both ways.

Tiger, Lion, and leader of the pack: Johnson seeks to repeat on-field success in management role

Born 9 March 1970, Solihull

1989-2005 Leicester Tigers (307 appearances)

1993-2003 England (84 caps)

1993-2001 British Lions (8 caps)

Honours:

2003 World Cup

2001, 2002 Heineken Cup

1995, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Premiership

1993, 1997 Pilkington Cup

TIMELINE

1993 Makes England debut against France at Twickenham in January. Also appears as a replacement for the Lions on tour of New Zealand.

1995 Wins Grand Slam. Wins league with Leicester.

1997 Appointed Leicester Tigers captain. Lifts Pilkington Cup. Captains Lions on victorious tour of South Africa.

1999 Leads Leicester to first of four consecutive league titles.

2001 Lifts first of back-to-back Heineken Cups. Captains Lions to Australia.

2003 Captains England to Grand Slam victory and World Cup in Australia.

2004 Retires from international rugby.

2005 Retires from club game.

Power and glory? Who reports to who in RFU's new world

Martyn Thomas (Management board chairman) A 'backwoodsman' who originally opposed the growth of professional club rugby, he insisted on change at the top.

Francis Baron (Chief executive) In position for the best part of a decade, his relationship with Johnson is hardly one of sweetness and light.

Rob Andrew (Director of elite rugby) Former England outside-half, his recent treatment of Ashton raises questions over long-term future at Twickenham.

Martin Johnson (England team manager) The Big Kahuna until 2011 - unless, of course, England lose a couple and the knives are sharpened once again.

A N Other (Attack coach) Put it this way: Johnson will be fortunate to find a better specialist in this regard than the man he has just shoved aside.

John Wells (Forwards coach) One of Johnson's old Leicester muckers, he worked alongside Ashton from 2006 without ever appearing to be on the same wavelength. *Mike Ford

(Defence coach)Another of Ashton's original partners, was furious when news broke of Johnson's controversial meeting with Shaun Edwards.

Graham Rowntree (Scrummaging coach) One of the good guys, Johnson's long-time club colleague has made enormous progress in a matter of months.

Jon Callard (Kicking coach) A fine technician, Callard is the last member left of England's so-called "Bath mafia" stretching back to Jack Rowell in 1994.

Brian Ashton (Academy coach?) Talk about being pushed to one side. Ashton has already done this job, superbly. Twice may be once too many.

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