It was a long, hard three and a half years, and Martin Johnson thought just as long and hard before walking away from his job as England manager – a job that ended in abject World Cup failure in the rugby badlands of New Zealand. But in the end, the untenable became the inevitable. "There's a part of me that regrets leaving because there's a degree of unfinished business," he said yesterday, "but I came into this with my eyes open and I leave with my eyes open. It's an all-encompassing, all-consuming role and when I ask myself if I'm ready to commit myself to another four years, the answer is: 'no, I'm not'."
Johnson made it clear in his valedictory address at Twickenham that he had run the operation his way, with the people he wanted alongside him. "I had all the help I needed," he insisted, "and I was allowed to do the job on my own terms. I was insulated from whatever was going on with the Rugby Football Union and what happened at the World Cup had nothing to do with issues over governance or structure. I'm looking you in the eye when I say this, and I'm not saying it to defend anyone. I'm saying it because it is true."
Sitting alongside him, in need of some defending, was Rob Andrew, the man who runs the professional rugby wing of the RFU's sprawling operation. While much of the questioning of Johnson was sympathetic in the extreme, the questioning of the former England outside-half was quite otherwise. Would he too be pondering his position? Andrew fought fire with fire. "There is a widespread misunderstanding of my role: my job is to run a huge department; Martin was appointed to run the England team," he responded. "No, I'm absolutely not considering resignation."
Many expected the body language between the two men to be strained, not least because Andrew had presided over the heavy disciplinary treatment dished out to the England centre Mike Tindall, whose off-field behaviour during the recent global gathering in All Black country had done so much to derail England's attempt to recapture the Webb Ellis Trophy. Johnson, who had shown a good deal of support for Tindall at the time, must surely have been taken aback by his occasional captain's ejection from the elite squad and the decision to fine him a whopping £25,000 into the bargain.
Yet the outgoing manager showed no sign of anger or frustration with Andrew during the 40 minutes they sat cheek by jowl. Quite the opposite. Asked whether the Tindall furore had been a major factor in his decision to quit, he replied: "There's no one thing that tipped me over the edge. I've taken a lot of things into consideration. If we had beaten France in that quarter-final, would I have reached the same conclusion? I don't know.
"You can only make decisions on where you are, not where you might have been. I've made mine while there's a choice in front of me. Would that choice have been there at the end of the review process? I don't know."
Andrew, as bristlingly combative as he has ever been in public session, said it was now his job to find the next England coach, adding that he was keen to get on with it. "I can't do anything while I'm sitting here," he said, pointedly. Who that coach might be, and when he might be appointed, is unclear, although some heavyweight candidates are in the frame, including the New Zealander Graham Henry, who guided the All Blacks to the world title less than a month ago.
Alarmingly, however, one of those initial candidates, the accomplished and vastly experienced South African coach Nick Mallett, is already out of the frame. Mallett, who has worked at international level with both the Springboks and Italy, revealed last night he had already been approached by the RFU, but had decided not to make himself available. "I was interested to hear what the RFU representatives had to say," he commented, "but my primary concern is my family. We are settled in Cape Town and it is my wish to be able to enjoy time with my wife and kids after four years in Italy."
Whoever takes on the biggest task in world rugby, he will be under every bit as much pressure as Johnson encountered. "If you want a nice, steady life, don't do the job," he said. "It's tough, but that's the deal. Coaches get sacked, players get dropped: the people who get involved in this aren't blind to that fact. They live in that world and yes, it can be hard. If it was easy, anyone could do it."
Martin Johnson was as far from "anyone" as it gets in the world of rugby union, but the job still proved too much for him.
Runners and riders: Is Mallinder the man?
The World Cup-winning New Zealander's credentials could hardly be more impressive, although at 65 he may be a little long in the tooth to take up a hands-on role.
Probably the outstanding English candidate, although the former Gloucester coach Dean Ryan might have his supporters. Mallinder's work at Northampton has been intelligent and resourceful.
Another World Cup-winning coach, the South African has always coveted a Twickenham role and is said to have an escape clause in his contract with ACT Brumbies, the Australian side.
5-2 Mallinder; 4-1 Henry; 9-2 Mallett; 6-1 Joe Schmidt; 10-1 John Kirwan; 14-1 Shaun Edwards; 16-1 White, Sir Clive Woodward; 20-1 Dean Richards, Paul Grayson, Richard Cockerill, Dean Ryan.Reuse content