Martin Johnson looked like he had seen a ghost – hardly surprising, in light of the ghoulish coverage of his England team’s spectacular pratfall at the World Cup in New Zealand – but he still had enough of the old fighting spirit to mount a fierce defence of a campaign that has sent Twickenham into meltdown and set players tearing at each other’s throats in the pages of three leaked reports. “We are seeing opinion being presented as fact, and it’s wrong,” he said yesterday. “This is one of the worst things I’ve experienced in the game. It’s horrible.”
The former manager – Johnson walked away from the job 10 days ago after seeing three and a half years of planning and preparation disappear in a puff of acrid smoke – reappeared in public to give his views on the detail drawn from more than a hundred pages of evidence, the vast majority of it provided anonymously by members of his squad. "I couldn't sit there for another day and see things being reported that are nowhere near the truth," he explained. "We are talking about extreme views written in extreme circumstances at a very emotional time and there's an imbalance, because there are good things in those reports that are not being presented. I'm angry and frustrated, and it's sad for the sport.
"To simply pick out the most emotive parts, the worst comments, is very dangerous because it's not a proper reflection of what went on. We made mistakes, there's no doubt about it: how we handled some of the issues that arose...maybe we could have done things differently. But I've been speaking to the players and a lot of them are horrified by the way this is being reported. Sometimes you just let things go by, but this has been so inaccurate I thought I had to come here and speak out for the management group, the players [and] the whole game."
Johnson, a World Cup-winning captain in 2003 who was effectively head-hunted by the Rugby Football Union's management board and given the top job even though he had no relevant experience in terms of coaching or selection, insisted he had not seen the contents of the reports – compiled by the RFU, the Premiership clubs and the Rugby Players' Association – before the documents were leaked to the media in all their gory detail. This scotched the theory that he had quit because he was acutely aware that the ventilators were about to be swamped by something extremely malodorous.
He addressed a number of problem areas, including the one that did most to bring the World Cup challenge to its knees: Mike Tindall's drunken antics in Queenstown after the opening pool victory over Argentina – an incident that left the newest member of the extended royal family in a hugely embarrassing position. "My reaction to Mike... well, he knew what he'd done and where his actions might possibly lead," Johnson said. "He was in a very bad place personally and he put the team in it. I thought my job was to keep the team together and help Mike through it. In hindsight, of course, it would have been better if we'd all stayed indoors and not gone out."
There was also a commentary on exactly what happened when three players – Chris Ashton, James Haskell and Dylan Hartley – were accused of the alleged harassment of a hotel chambermaid in Dunedin, during the early days of the trip. This was the subject of startling revelations yesterday, with documents indicating that the RFU had put pressure on the players to pay the woman what amounted to hush money. They refused, denying they were guilty of any wrongdoing.
"It was one of the options on the table," Johnson confirmed. "I had spoken to the girl a number of times, the players had apologised to her and we thought that was the end of the matter from both sides. Three weeks after the event there was a demand for money from her lawyers. We were in a very difficult position. There were a number of options, none of them particularly nice. We told the players that the first thing they had to do was get themselves some independent legal advice.
"How much all this affected things on the field, it's difficult to judge. I know it probably affected certain individuals and eroded a little bit of trust. Some players were clearly frustrated. Lewis Moody [the captain] called a team meeting to discuss things and I spoke to people after the Queenstown incident and let them know in no uncertain terms as to where I thought things were at that point. Certain actions by certain players did let the group down and led us to be portrayed as something we weren't, something they aren't."
On England's return, Ashton and Haskell were given suspended fines of £5,000 by the governing body, while Hartley was absolved of any blame.
Tindall, meanwhile, was thrown out of the elite player squad for his contribution to this unholy mess and fined £25,000 for good measure. His appeal against that punishment, heard by the RFU's outgoing acting chief executive Martyn Thomas on Thursday, is under consideration, while yesterday Moody and Courtney Lawes had their fines for wearing branded mouthguards reduced to £7,500 and £6,500 respectively. Last week, Johnson had said that a part of him wanted to stay on with the national team and put things right. Yesterday, he indicated again that there was a temptation "to fight the good fight". Asked why he had rejected the idea, he said that the "other side of the argument won".
So what now? "Rob Andrew has said that things are at rock bottom and it's probably true," Johnson acknowledged. "The fact that we have let it get to here is disappointing: the way the players and the game are now being portrayed is damaging. The England team should be at the top of the game for everyone to look up to, admire and respect. But if I know the players at all, they'll come out of this stronger. It's difficult for them because they're not together at the moment, but once they're back playing... there are a lot of good people in the squad."
Meanwhile, the players' union has reacted strongly to claims amongst the leaked material that some England players were motivated more by hard cash than by tough rugby during the tournament in All Black country.
"We dispute the suggestion that the players are money-orientated," said Damian Hopley, the chief executive of the RPA, who described the publication of his members' views as "rugby's darkest day" and expressed his fury at the breach of faith. Hopley added: "These guys are professionals and clearly want to maximum their income, but to disparage them as greedy is completely without foundation. The interviews for the reports were done in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup, there was a lot of emotion and some things were blown up out of proportion, But it was important that everyone fronted up and tried to be honest and candid at a moment when people were questioning the culture and leadership in the game."
Seven Days That Rocked Rugby
Martin Johnson resigns as England manager following his side's poor showing at the World Cup but the RFU's director of elite rugby, Rob Andrew, rejects calls for him to also quit. The former England captain Johnson had 38 games in charge.
World Cup-winning England coach Clive Woodward criticises the RFU for failing to support the inexperienced Johnson in his first role in management. Woodward says Johnson should have been given a 'mentor' to assist him.
Ironically, amid all the gloom the RFU announces a record £8.7m profit in the last financial year – a marked improvement on the £1.1m loss recorded in 2009-10, thanks mainly to increased match-day revenue.
Triumphant New Zealand coach Graham Henry rules himself out of the running to replace Johnson. The World Cup winner was considered a front runner for English rugby's top job, but says he has little desire to live in the northern hemisphere again.
A damning confidential report, in which players gave their opinions on the World Cup fiasco, is leaked to the press. Coaches were criticised for their amateur methods, while some players were accused of being focused on financial gain.
Rob Andrew admits the RFU has 'hit rock bottom' with the revelations, saying changes need to be made within the organisation. The attack coach Brian Smith resigns after being described as 'way out of his depth' in the leaked report.
Further ignominy is heaped on the RFU as it is revealed that three players were encouraged by its head of media to pay a female Dunedin hotel worker 'hush money' following an incident of 'lewd behaviour'.
On Ashton and Haskell
“I had spoken to the girl a number of times. Three weeks after the event there was a demand for money from her lawyers. We were in very a difficult position.”
“He knew what he’d done and where his actions might possibly lead. He was in a very bad place personally and he put the team in it.”
“Lewis Moody called a team meeting and I spoke to people and let them know in no uncertain terms where I thought things were at that point.”
“He says things are at rock bottom and it’s probably true. The fact that we have let it get to here is disappointing: the way the players and the game are now being portrayed is damaging.”