A leading question: Is Martin Johnson qualified to manage the national team?

Martin Johnson's inspirational captaincy guided England to their World Cup triumph. But does that qualify him to manage the national team? As a new red rose era begins today, Chris Hewett checks his credentials
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The Independent Online

Last weekend, the novelist Tobias Wolff described his fellow Americans' successive decisions to send George W Bush to the White House as "votes for nostalgia". Martin Johnson has precious little in common with the unpresident-elect of the most powerful nation on earth – Bush never won a line-out; Johnson can comfortably negotiate the highways and byways of the English language without disappearing over the edge of a syntactical precipice. But there is very definitely a suspicion that when the Rugby Football Union appointed the great second-row forward as manager of the national team despite his spectacular lack of credentials, they were driven by the same wistful yearning for simpler, better days.

Viewing the World Cup triumph of five years ago through the prism of subsequent failures – "failures" as terrible as England reaching a second successive final in 2007 before losing narrowly to a well-prepared and single-minded Springbok team – the RFU's management board decided that the way forward was the way back. Back to 2003, when the red-rose garden had been Eden itself.

As with all sentimentalists, they conveniently forgot more than they chose to remember: as a captain who once led a players' strike, Johnson himself would no doubt testify that life under Sir Clive Woodward was anything but free, easy and utopian. But the die was cast. The spirit of '03 had to be recaptured, whatever the price, and Johnson was the living embodiment of it. The price was considerable, and it was paid in blood money. In its desperation to marginalise, and then rid itself, of the incumbent head coach Brian Ashton – who had, lest it be forgotten, led the team to second places in both the World Cup and the Six Nations Championship – the governing body could not have behaved in a more squalid fashion. To this day, its leading lights have not uttered a single word of explanation in respect of Ashton's departure; indeed, during England's miserable tour of New Zealand last June, the chief executive, Francis Baron, could be heard denying there had been a sacking at all.

Various management board members privately expressed their horror at Ashton's treatment, but these were the very people who could not wait to see the back of him. "Things really kicked off in Edinburgh last March, the night of the Calcutta Cup defeat by Scotland," recalled one senior figure, intimately acquainted with events. "The mood amongst the board members was one of absolute carnage." The appointment of Johnson, who had never coached, managed or selected a team of any description – who, when questioned a few months previously about a top-end involvement with the national team, had insisted he "would not be so arrogant as to think I could do anything of the sort without the relevant experience" and "would not consider going straight in at England level" – was born of that carnage.

Suddenly, he is the face of England rugby. Far more so than Steve Borthwick, his captain, or even Danny Cipriani, his resident glamour boy. Far more so, in fact, than in his own playing days, because back then, the sporting public at large was more interested in Jonny Wilkinson, the clean-cut model professional, and Lawrence Dallaglio, the ever-so-lovable rogue. With his battle-hardened, beetle-browed visage now staring down from the advertising hoardings, with the accompanying message of, "He's Back!", the ante has been upped more than he might have wished, for expectation levels are greater than at any time since 1994, when the phenomenally successful Bath coach Jack Rowell succeeded Geoff Cooke as head cook and bottlewasher.

So much has been invested in the Johnson "aura" – part tough-guy image and part "winning mentality", underpinned by his track record as an on-field leader and the respect in which he is held by those who rightly admire his instinctive command of rugby's basic truths – that anything less than three victories from these four autumn internationals against the Pacific Islands, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand might legitimately be considered a disappointment. Yet the manager can expect a lengthy honeymoon, irrespective of how events unfold at Twickenham over the coming weeks.

Why should this be? Woodward, the first full-time professional coach to take charge of the England team, endured the roughest of rides in his first year; Andy Robinson, who succeeded him in 2004, was roundly lambasted after a home defeat by Australia just three matches into his tenure; and if Ashton emerged relatively unscathed from a difficult first Six Nations series, it was only because the timing of his appointment so close to the defence of the world title cut him some slack. A fat lot of good it did him. The moment England arrived in France for the global gathering a few months later, he resembled a human dartboard.

Johnson is secure because the RFU cannot, under any circumstances, afford to turn on him. If it did, at least two senior figures – the chairman Martyn Thomas and the director of elite rugby Rob Andrew – could not hope to survive, given their prominent roles in the Ashton affair. There is, however, a second, more positive reason why the old Leicester hard-head can anticipate a lengthy run in this high-profile posting. His name is Brian Smith.

The two men used to play together at Welford Road. Not for as long as Johnson played with his old mucker John Wells, now in his third year as England's forwards coach, or with Graham Rowntree, fast-tracked into the set-up as a specialist scrummaging technician, but long enough to appreciate the breadth of the Australian's rugby imagination and the keenness of his tactical acumen. It is Smith who is developing what the manager describes as a "new attacking philosophy", and few doubt that he will wield enormous influence as the team builds towards the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand – the point at which Johnson's regime will be judged for good or ill.

Ironically, Smith is very much an Ashton man. "I'm in the Brian Ashton camp when it comes to running rugby," he said in the early spring of 2007, just as he was piloting London Irish towards a place in the end-of-season Premiership play-offs.

"Four tries a game, and I'd die happy. To my mind, it's a question of good over evil." It's strange, the way things turn out. Should Smith outperform Ashton himself in transporting England towards this state of grace – and at this point in the rugby cycle, with fresh talent available to him and the World Cup a long way off, he has a decent chance – he will give the RFU hatchet-men the legitimacy they crave.

It says something for Johnson's persuasive powers that Smith was willing to take on the role, for the Australian was less than impressed at the union's treatment of Ashton. It also says something for Johnson's appreciation of his own limitations. One of the two or three finest English players of the modern era, the rugby he knew at first hand is not the rugby played now. The Experimental Law Variations imposed by the International Rugby Board have ensured as much, with their profound effects on the maul and the line-out, two theatres of action in which the manager was once king of the castle.

He quickly appreciated the need for a cutting-edge ideas man, and he found himself one.

Even the Johnson hero-worshippers on the union's management board must realise that the tough-nut "aura" counts for less now than it did in 2003, when his performances at the business end of the World Cup campaign had a grandeur all of their own. Intimidation, aggression, a complete mastery of rugby's dark arts: these talents are no longer of use to him. What matters now is his ability to lead and inspire by suggestion rather than by example – that and picking the right team.

So often a figure of certainty, Johnson finds himself in charge at a moment of profound uncertainty. We can be sure only of this: he will go about his work quietly, authoritatively and without ostentation. "When England score a try," he was asked this week, "will you jump up and down as Clive Woodward used to do or sit there with a face like a slapped arse, a la Andy Robinson?" "What do you think?" he replied. "I think I'll tend towards the second option."

Management material? Great players who stepped up

*John DawesGrand Slam-winning captain of Wales (and victorious 1971 Lions), who won Slams as coach of Wales in the mid- to late-1970s and also coached the Lions in New Zealand in 1977.

*Brian Lochore One of the great No 8s in rugby history, he captained the All Blacks, and also coached them to victory in the inaugural World Cup in 1987. The Blacks have not won the trophy since.

*Pierre Berbizier Successful captain of France (beaten World Cup finalists in '87) and a wonderful scrum-half, he coached both France and Italy with success.

The Pacific Islands have lost all six Test matches they have played since their formation in 2004, and have never played England. The most points they have scored was 26, against New Zealand's 41, in Auckland in October 2004.