'Addicted' Johnson keen to stay beyond World Cup campaign
England's manager has come to relish the extremes of role and wants to remain in situ long term
Martin Johnson has never struck the English rugby public as one of life's compulsive sorts, although there were times during his playing career when he seemed fixated by the governing body's disciplinary procedures. Yesterday, he lifted the curtain on a hidden corner of his personality when he described managing the national team as "addictive" – the clearest sign yet that he intends to stay in his post after this year's World Cup in New Zealand.
It may not be his decision to make, of course: John Steele, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, is unlikely to throw the weight of his office behind the former captain's candidacy if England are flying home just when thousands of their own supporters are travelling out for the tournament's knock-out stage, waving apologetically at them in mid-air. But Johnson believes he is getting the measure of his job, despite the pasting inflicted on his team in Dublin last weekend. Given the opportunity, he will relish a Six Nations return to the new Lansdowne Road in 2013 – not to mention a second tour of World Cup duty two years later.
"It's an addictive job, even when you're suffering the stress and disappointment," he said yesterday during a championship review session at Twickenham. "The day after the last match is always the worst day of the year: you've been in a long tournament, and suddenly you're sitting there with no players around. This current group is a very good one, and when you have time together, have some continuity and then some success, you understand why you do it. As things stand, I'd like to continue. These players are smart and savvy enough to get better. Significantly better, in my view."
If the RFU was more than a little embarrassed by the leaking of a sponsorship video celebrating a Grand Slam that never happened, not to mention the destruction of 5,000 T-shirts marking the same non-existent triumph, Johnson was more interested – and far more concerned – at the news of Mike Tindall, the Gloucester centre who led the side through four-fifths of the tournament in the absence of the injured Lewis Moody. Tindall missed the Dublin date after doing something nasty to his ankle ligaments during the narrow Calcutta Cup victory over Scotland and will be out of commission for at least three months after undergoing surgery.
That rules the 2003 World Cup winner out of any squad training in early summer and may threaten his participation in New Zealand, especially if there are complications with his rehabilitation. All being well, though, he will be fit for the important warm-up game with Wales on 6 August – a match for which he has declared himself available despite it being uncomfortably close to his wedding to Zara Phillips, scheduled for 30 July. Honeymoon? What honeymoon?
A second Gloucester player, albeit one about to leave Kingsholm for Bath, has his issues ahead of the global gathering. The lock Dave Attwood, a big hit on last summer's tour of Australia and New Zealand, missed the Six Nations because of suspension and now finds himself scratching around for matches in an effort to remind Johnson of his existence. "He didn't help his cause by being banned and if you're not playing for your club, opportunities are bound to be limited," the manager said. "We need to look at different combinations in the back five of the scrum, but it's going to be competitive getting into the summer training squad, let alone the final 30."
Johnson will take a maximum of nine back-five players to All Black country. Fitness willing, there are seven virtual certainties: Tom Palmer, Courtney Lawes, Tom Croft, Tom Wood, James Haskell, Nick Easter and Moody. That would leave Attwood scrapping away with Louis Deacon, Simon Shaw, Hendre Fourie, Chris Robshaw and Phil Dowson for the final couple of slots.
Meanwhile, the director of elite rugby, Rob Andrew, mounted a strong defence of Johnson's management and, indeed, his own contribution to red rose affairs since beating Sir Clive Woodward to the job in 2006. "We should look at the big picture," he said. "If someone had told us this time last season that the next 12 months would see us win a first Test in the southern hemisphere since '03, that we'd record our biggest-ever victory over the Wallabies, and that we'd win the Six Nations in World Cup year with 13 players aged under 25, we'd have described that as pretty good.
"Things like Dublin happen: I played in far more experienced teams who were swept away over there. The reality is that by reaching our agreement with the Premiership clubs, English rugby is as joined-up as it's ever been." It was enough to make you wonder why the RFU wants to nudge him sideways.
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