There was a fleeting moment yesterday when Martin Johnson, for so long the unwavering and unbreakable strongman of English rugby, looked as though he might suddenly find himself in touch with his feminine side. "It's still so raw," he said, his voice cracking and weakening.
You put so much emotional energy into something like this and it's a risk, because by getting it wrong for 20 minutes – or even five seconds, as Scotland found out – you end up here, in an exit press conference. You certainly know you're alive when you're involved in high-level sport and that's why I like it, but this is a bitter disappointment."
Johnson was speaking before the latest off-the-pitch indiscretion by an England player became public knowledge. Manu Tuilagi had been on a day trip to Waiheke Island with some of his team-mates yesterday as they licked their wounds following Saturday's 19-12 quarter-final defeat to France. As the ferry back to Auckland prepared to berth, Tuilagi jumped into the water and swam to a nearby pier where he was detained by police and taken to Auckland Central Police station. He was given a pre-charge warning for disorderly behaviour before being released.
The centre was later fined £3,000 by the RFU and admitted it was "a really stupid thing to do. I apologise for any inconvenience caused."
It was another black mark on the least satisfactory England performance at a World Cup but no senior members of the England coaching team believe the events of the past month will drive Johnson to quit, but it is by no means certain he will survive the forthcoming Rugby Football Union review into the failed World Cup campaign andstay in place for next year's Six Nations Championship, which begins in February.
Rob Andrew, a former team-mate of Johnson's at England and Lions levels, is the man who will effectively decide the manager's future, assuming there is no resignation. Recently appointed the RFU's professional rugby director – the job once popularly thought to be Sir Clive Woodward's for the taking – Andrew will lead the review, complete it well before Christmas and make his recommendations to the governing body's management board. The playing squad for the Six Nations will be announced on New Year's Day.
Andrew, whose own career at Twickenham has hit what Johnson would call some "bumps in the road" over the last few months, was sitting alongside the manager yesterday. "Martin will reflect on what's happened – why we've gone out in the quarter-finals of a World Cup, which is very disappointing," he said. "We said right back in 2008 that he'd take things through to this tournament and that's happened. Now is the time to take stock, look at where Martin is in his role and start thinking about the next few years. It will be a robust review, but what we won't do is overreact one way or the other."
The continuing political meltdown at the RFU that began with the sacking of the chief executive, John Steele, and may very well end with the calling of a special general meeting to debate a vote of no confidence in both the management board and the former chairman, Martyn Thomas, currently performing the CEO duties on a temporary basis before he leaves the union to head up preparations for the 2015 World Cup in England, appears on the face of it to make Johnson's enforced departure unlikely. Twickenham has enough on its plate, without involving itself in another high-profile sacking.
However, some members would like to see Nick Mallett, the former Springbok coach who brought Italy to this World Cup and is now a free agent, involved with England at a high level, and as Andrew has secured the directorship, the post of manager or head coach is the only one that could attract a rugby man of the South African's considerable stature.
Other names are not obviously available: Jake White, who coached the Springboks to victory in 2007, has started work in Australia with the Canberra-based Brumbies; Eddie Jones, who took the Wallabies to the 2003 final, is currently coaching at club level in Japan and is a hot tip to succeed John Kirwan at the national side. Of the home-grown coaches, Jim Mallinder of Northampton and Richard Hill of Worcester are considered the best hands-on coaches, while Conor O'Shea of Harlequins is a big success in south-west London.
Johnson accepted that his players made life unnecessarily difficult for themselves by letting standards of behaviour slip at the start of the trip, when the team were based in New Zealand's South Island.
"Inevitably, off-field incidents involving a national team in a World Cup are blown up into huge stories," he said. "Internally, we dealt with it early and handled it pretty well, but you still find yourselves stuck on something that needn't have happened. It's not always right and fair how things are reported, but I don't get to control that. It's just a reminder of what can happen and where things can be taken if you open the door half an inch.
"I have no massive regrets – nothing that jumps out and tells me I should have done something very differently – and I don't think the problems at the RFU impacted on our preparations for this tournament. The union has been fantastic in its support: there's this feeling that something dark and sinister is always waiting to jump out, but it's not the case. And frankly, if you ask the players about what's going on at Twickenham, they wouldn't know. Why would they? They come to these tournaments to play rugby and our plans and budgets were in place long before the events of the last few months."
Intriguingly, Andrew and Johnson were not the only senior rugby figures fielding awkward questions yesterday. Philippe Saint-André, the former Gloucester and Sale coach who will succeed Marc Lièvremont as coach of France, found his tax affairs being picked over by his country's media, only hours after watching the Tricolores beat England at Eden Park. The tournament is no cakewalk, even for the people associated with the winning sides.Reuse content