James Lawton: Johnson's sigh of pain well short of a leader's mission statement

James Haskell came off the field with the bravado of a hero from Flashman
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Francis Baron, chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, and his director of "elite" rugby, Rob Andrew, have so many problems to solve, and such an urgent need to prove that they are aware of quite how profound is the slide of the England team into bankruptcy, they really need to make a start this very morning.

One gesture towards reality, and a sense of their own responsibility for the grief that is now falling on the head of Martin Johnson and his plainly inadequate team, would be a swift rewriting of the organisation's "mission statement".

After three weeks of progressively contemptuous undressing by the southern hemisphere it still reads like the resolve of brave but clueless missionaries nosing down the Nile.

The RFU mission, it says, is "to promote and govern rugby union in England through maintaining stable structures for the game that enables its successful development at all levels for the benefit of all its participants". This clearly includes the poor saps who on Saturday, against a seriously underperforming All Blacks, found quite beyond them the challenge of playing sufficiently within the "referee's rules" – who else's would be relevant? – so as to have all of their players on the field at the same time for more than half the match. We know this to be true because the mission statement goes on to state a further ambition: "To be world leaders through excellence in every aspect of the elite game."

Better, surely, to rewrite along the lines of, "It is our solemn duty to aspire to the dizzying heights of mere competence." England's descent since they won the World Cup of 2003 on a rainy night in Sydney has been as vertiginous as the author of that success, Sir Clive Woodward, warned it would be if certain "stable structures" were not been put in place.

Now you can only weep for the warrior leader in the Telstra Stadium, Martin Johnson, who is reduced to mouthing the kind of platitudes heard on the lips of every time-battered-down coach in any sport who has looked down the barrel and discovered that his time is up.

No doubt the meaning of Johnson will preserve for some time his working life in charge of a disaster, but his declaration that England are operating with their best players and with a coaching staff that has all his confidence, and that they will all grow strong at the broken places suffered these last few weeks, was frankly no less than embarrassing after the New Zealanders had found their legs and something like their normal working rhythm.

If Dan Carter had not spent the afternoon attempting to imitate a normal, fallible human being, the score would have exceeded that of the previous week's slaughter by the South Africans. As it was, Carter only succeeded in his odd ambition, for a sporting god that is, when it came to kicking the dead ball. At other times he looked in an entirely different class in almost everything he did and most sublimely when he chipped the ball into the hands of Mils Muliaina for one of his two tries. Most of this was happening on another planet to the one occupied by England, and if there was any doubt about this it was swept away when James Haskell came off the field with the bravado of a hero of a Flashman novel. Stick with England, said Haskell, but stick with what? Shockingly ill-formed rugby and a code of discipline that would scarcely have passed muster at the old Club Med.

In the minds of some of the English players and coaches the real villain was Irish referee Alain Rolland, who was later described by All Black coach Graham Henry as "probably the best referee in the world". But whatever the vagaries of the rules governing the ruck, or more likely its apparent banishment in the international game, there would seem to be a minimal call on the wit of players representing a country who until a year ago could claim to be world champions, and who had had a month with their coaches before going near blindfolded into the final Test of the autumn trial that had turned into an unremitting ordeal.

It's called adaptability, or plain common sense. England had four in the sin bin – foolhardy against any opposition, suicidal against New Zealand – and it could easily have been five if Rolland had not produced a rare flash of mercy when Danny Care slammed gratuitously into Conrad Smith. "You're very lucky," said Rolland. Care probably didn't agree. Good luck would have been being beamed up to Uranus a little earlier in the afternoon.

All of this travail intensified when the news came in from the Millennium Stadium. The Welsh victory over Australia, the team who ushered England on to the scaffold two weeks earlier, confirmed them as the best team in Europe – and maybe, who knows, reminded the RFU that if you want to have a well-coached team it would be best to hire a coach who does know how to do it.

In Warren Gatland the Welsh identified such a figure, as they had earlier in their appointment of Henry and his current assistant Steve Hansen. By comparison England have made a travesty of such vital assessments of how to properly develop the team. Supporters of Brian Ashton now swear that what we are seeing is the sky over south-west London darkened by the sheer volume of roosting chickens.

Whether or not you believed in Ashton's ability to translate rich knowledge into effective leadership – his achievement in gaining a place in last year's World Cup final was, after all, clouded in particularly charmless fashion with claims of player power by no less than Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt – there was no question that his position was handled disgracefully by the RFU.

Its solution in returning to the totemic value of the Johnson appointment was, when you thought about it, never going to be more than an optimistic lunge. If great leaders on the field automatically transferred their powers to the touchline, men like Gatland, Henry, and so long before them, the Welsh guru Carwyn James, would probably have never been heard of. But then of course, sport doesn't work like that.

There are two kinds of leadership, one is forged in the action, another in the cold assessment of what makes a team. For the moment England are devoid of both. With a huge sigh, Johnson said that the pain and the extent of defeat had deepened his urge to get the job done. It was a brave statement but, again, what did it mean? Sadly, only that England remained a long march from that shimmering terrain of mere competence.