Martin Johnson's road to the 2015 World Cup has turned into the Way of the Cross, with all its pain and humiliation, and there is no guarantee he will reach the end of it – or even be given the chance to travel so much as a yard down its length. Martyn Thomas, the acting chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, made it clear in a strikingly candid address here yesterday that the shop-soiled England manager's future is under very serious threat as a result of his team's implosion at this tournament. Some of his misbehaving players will also be feeling acutely uncomfortable, for they are about to have the book thrown at them.
Johnson, whose current contract expires on 31 December, has until tomorrow week to decide whether he wants to remain in charge. Even if he expresses an interest in doing so, he will be subject to what is certain to be a penetrating external review of his performance – not just over these calamitous few weeks in New Zealand, but across the entire three-and-a-half-year span of his tenure – headed by the forthright former England prop and Lions manager Fran Cotton, still a heavyweight political bruiser in Twickenham circles even though he has been out of the front line of rugby governance for some time. As Cotton has already taken to the airwaves with a fierce critique of what has been going on, there is a strong possibility that the Johnson regime will fall, taking an entire elite coaching staff with it.
Try this for size: "Martin has now been in charge [since 2008] and it is very difficult to understand what style of play this England team is all about. The basic skills of rugby ... just aren't good enough and I haven't seen an improvement in the last three and a half years." So said Cotton in a television interview this week. When Thomas confirmed his intention to sanction a review under the leadership of his old ally, he did not know of these comments. On being told, he looked startled.
These developments are likely to overshadow the internal squabbling at Twickenham, which may yet result in the calling of a special general meeting aimed at removing Thomas from all forms of RFU-linked office, including the chairmanship of the body set up to plan and deliver the home World Cup in 2015. Thomas is firefighting for all he is worth in an effort to remain a central figure in the English game, and he has some powerful supporters. "The International Rugby Board have asked me for an assurance that I'll be involved in 2015, which is reassuring," he said.
Before Thomas hands the CEO duties to an incoming full-timer at the end of the year, Johnson's future will have been subject to a flurry of reviews: one led by the director of elite rugby Rob Andrew as his line manager; one involving the professional game board, which brings senior figures from the Premiership club scene and the players' union together with RFU delegates; and the Cotton venture, to which at least one high-performance expert from outside the game will be asked to contribute. Add to these two investigations of recent events at Twickenham, and the reviews in progress outnumber the tries scored by England against serious opposition at this tournament.
Thomas was crystal clear in his view that the Cotton review would be the most important. "Fran will report by the end of November," he said. "We are unhappy with what happened on the field and the off-field behaviour was wholly unacceptable. Martin has always made it clear that he is the manager, that he runs the team, that the buck stops with him. We need to know what happened because I don't think anyone could accuse the RFU of not giving all the necessary support. Everything the England team wanted was provided.
"I spoke to Martin after the quarter-final [in which England were knocked out by France]. He was upset, and it was not the time then to go into his future. I need to know, ideally inside seven to 14 days from that match, if he wishes to be considered for the job starting on 1 January. Not that continuing will be his decision.
"As for the misconduct among the players, Karina Vleck [the RFU's legal officer] will investigate all allegations over the next couple of weeks and assess any breaches of the Elite Player Squad agreement and the code of conduct put in place for this tournament. I hope everyone shares my feeling that, in this regard, Martin was let down by a number of players – people who were extensively counselled and coached with particular reference to the problems we had in New Zealand in 2008. Appropriate action will be taken. Players can be fined, cautioned as to their future conduct, told they will not be available for England going forward. I certainly believe Martin was let down. Whether he himself was culpable, I can't go into today."
The fact that it was Thomas who initially pushed for the setting-up of the Johnson regime and set in train events that saw Brian Ashton, who coached England to the final of the 2007 World Cup, driven out in a manner bordering on the despicable, cannot be forgotten – and indeed, the chief executive was not allowed to forget it. Did he now accept he had made a serious error of judgement? "I've thought about it," he replied. "It might have been wrong. I'm certainly prepared to concede that. Fran will comment on this, come up with a view on whether we should have a manager or a coach in charge. What we can't do is rush in willy-nilly. We have to get this right, because we've wasted a lot of time since 2003."
And what might getting it right mean, at this most sensitive of moments? The appointment of Sir Clive Woodward to a major Twickenham role after next year's Olympics, perhaps? Thomas, a vocal public supporter of Woodward, would not be drawn on the subject, but rest assured: the clamour for the good knight's return is about to hit new decibel levels.
RFU reviews: More investigations than tries
Review No 1 The former England prop and Lions manager Fran Cotton is to review the entire three-and-a-half-year tenure of Martin Johnson, the England manager, at the request of Martyn Thomas, the acting chief executive of the RFU. Cotton has already been a public critic of Johnson so he may well conclude his regime should fall.
Review No 2 Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby at the RFU, is Johnson's line manager and is conducting a review into England's performance at the World Cup. He hopes to conclude his review within a month.
Review No 3 The professional game board, which brings senior figures from Premiership clubs and the players' union together with RFU delegates is also reviewing England's World Cup.
Review No 4 Johnson himself is reviewing his own performance at the World Cup and is deciding whether he wants and/or feels he is able to carry on as manager. He should probably conclude his review before the others conclude theirs and decide his number is up. As such, Review No 1 has urged Review No 4 to be concluded within the week.