The trouble with Martin Johnson, as the man himself is undoubtedly aware, is that as things stand with a stuttering England team, he is the most dominant and recognisable personality associated with it. Short of genetic modification, the captain named by Johnson to lead the tour to New Zealand next month – Bath's Steve Borthwick – can never be a second-row skipper in the new manager's image. No one can.
So when Johnson, despite not starting his job formallyuntil 1 July, strode centre-stage at Twickenham the other day, he attempted the difficult trick of talking his side up while playing expectation down. "People place too much emphasis on captaincy," Johnson said, as he always does. Even though every guest at every dinner and sponsor's bash since he retired from playing in 2005 – and there have been plenty – was there because this was the man who led the men who won the World Cup, a Lions tour, Heineken Cups and so on.
If these were more reassuring times for England, their captain would dominate the world in his position. The Waterloo-born Borthwick, 28, has yet to come close in seven years of Tests.
He has skippered Bath this season; on and off and on again after ructions within the club accompanied his move to Saracens this summer. He has the England role for the two-match New Zealand trip alone. Johnson himself will miss the tour to be with his wife, Kay, who is due to give birth to their second child.
The counter-argument was that Johnson should have picked a younger man as captain –James Haskell, Tom Rees or even the precocious fly-half, Danny Cipriani, say – and given him a run at it. Patience may be the key. The issue will be revisited after the elite player squad is picked in July, ahead of a tough autumn series at Twickenham against the Pacific Islands, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.
Johnson argued that a good side would have a core of consistent, quality players to whom the team, as it were, belonged. England since the World Cup of 2003 have been all fission and no nucleus; the leading men have either been injured, not selected correctly or simply non-existent.
"The next generation of leaders included Jonny [Wilkinson], and he didn't play for three years [because of injury]," said Johnson. "[Mike] Tindall was anotherlike that, [and so were] Phil Vickery, Trevor Woodman, Richard Hill, all those guys.
"We've got some guys on this tour who definitely fall into that category and some guys we'd like to see stand up into that category. And you've got to help them do it. I had this conversation with one of the players and he said it's a two-way street. And I said, 'You're entirely right, it is'. You have togive them the opportunityto do it."
The caring, sharing Johnno does not fit the caricaturists' sketch of a brooding monster, and Wilkinson – who has recently had a shoulder operation – and each of the players not retained from the Six Nations squad were given what Johnson called the "common courtesy" of a chat about the status quo. "There's things you're not aware of," said Johnson, "and if you don't talk to players, you're never going to know."
It is refreshing to those who recall Clive Woodward delivering bad news to a dropped player with a call or a text at the crack of dawn. Or Brian Ashton not calling at all when he dropped Andy Goode at the start of 2007 (the fly-half had started under Andy Robinson in the last Test of 2006).
"This is all about building bridges, it is club and country now, not club or country," said Rob Andrew, the RFU's elite rugby director, who will manage the tour in Johnson's absence.
In other respects England's annus interruptus, which began with a patheticcapitulation to Wales and moved on to the dumping of Ashton as head coach, lurches along. The RFU are seeking to replace a portion of the players' current flat match fee of £9,000 with a win bonus, and the players disagree. The Premier clubs intend to redistribute evenlyamong their number part of the RFU payments which reward the production of England-qualified players, and the RFU disagree.
Johnson was rebuffed by London Irish when he asked to speak to Brian Smith over the vacant position of England attack coach so, presumably, it is up to Smith to apply and give his club notice. The world awaits convincing notice of an England revival.Reuse content