The Last Word: Why Johnson will struggle to stay the course

Thoroughbreds like the England coach are on a loser when they straddle fence from playing to managing
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The Independent Online

These are still embryonic days for the man whose job it is to dig for victories as the head of the new England rugby union machine. Martin Johnson may yet come up smelling of red roses. He might even come up smiling, from beneath the darkened brow that was furrowed by 28 Australian points at Twickenham a fortnight ago and deepened to something of a trench by 42 Springbok points at the old south-west London cabbage patch last weekend.

For that smile to have the golden glint of the Webb Ellis Cup about it in New Zealand in 2011, though, the England team manager of five months would need to break new ground. No national manager or head coach has ever succeeded in building a Rugby World Cup-winning side without having served a coaching apprenticeship somewhere closer to the grass roots of the game.

Jake White, the man responsible for the Springboks being the holders of the treasured tin pot courtesy of their 15-6 victory against England in last year's final in the Stade de France, started his coaching career with the First XV at Parktown High School in Johannesburg in 1982. White graduated to the post of South Africa's head coach by degrees, via a stint as their video analyst and a spell in charge of South Africa's Under-21 side, whom he led to victory in the Under-21 World Cup in 2002.

It was similar with Clive Woodward, the future knight of the realm who took the England team captained by Johnson to World Cup glory in 2003. In contrast to White, who had been a hooker in the Johannesburg College First XV, he brought the curriculum vitae of a distinguished former international player to the coaches' table, having been a centre of some excellence with England and the British and Irish Lions. He still served some time on the lower rungs, though, trialling his holistic approach with Henley in South West Division Two before moving on to London Irish, Bath and the England Under-21 team.

Likewise, the first four Rugby World Cup-winning coaches – Rod Macqueen (Australia, 1999), Kitch Christie (South Africa, 1995), Bob Dwyer (Australia, 1991) and Brian Lochore (New Zealand, 1987) – all learned their trade at club level before taking charge of their national teams. The big question about Johnson is whether he can succeed in breaking the mould.

As Sir Clive himself remarked before his one-time captain's debut in the manager's seat at Twickenham: "I think we'd all be a little bit more confident if he had spent three or four years coaching at Leicester or somewhere and was coming in with a proven record of being a chess player. He's a warrior; we're about to find out whether he can play chess."

Only time will tell. Johnson has been no Bobby Fischer in his autumn baptism, but then Woodward looked not so much like a future knight as a cornered king a year into his reign in the England job. Remember the Tour From Hell: the shipping of 76 points against Australia and 64 against New Zealand? That came in the summer of 1998, five years before the heavenly heights of Jonny Wilkinson's drop goal at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney.

There are two more autumn series plus a trio of Six Nations' Championships to negotiate before the judgement days arrive for the Johnno regime at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. That is, of course, assuming that the powers that be at Twickenham keep backing their man and desist from swapping horses in midstream.

Sporting wisdom has it that thoroughbreds like Johnson do not tend to have the required stock for staying the course when they straddle the fence from the playing to the coaching-cum-managing side of their particular game. Sadly, the size of the challenge proved to be a Becher's Brook for the man who captained England to football's World Cup in 1966. The great Bobby Moore had a not-so-great time in management at Oxford City and Southend United. It was the same for Bobby Charlton at Preston, Geoff Hurst at Chelsea, Jackie Milburn at Ipswich and countless others.

Four of the six Rugby World Cup-winning coaches – White, Macqueen, Christie and Dwyer – never got close to international level as players. Alex Ferguson once finished as joint-top scorer in the Scottish First Division but did not get close to the Scotland team as a footballer. Arsène Wenger and Jose Mourinho were players of even more modest means but also made the trophy-winning grade when they moved into management.

For the past 27 months, Roy Keane has been making his way as a football manager. As totemic a figure as Johnson in his playing days – and as successful a one, at club level at least – he is still learning the ropes with Sunderland, not quite the top job in the domestic round-ball game.

His team's form of late has hit a ropey patch, but the lengths to which Keane has gone to study the management game could hardly be more impressive. Last June he travelled the 12,096 miles from Sunderland to Wellington to spend a week with the New Zealand rugby union team.

Not that Martin Johnson could expect to be quite so welcome if he fancied furthering his management education with a bit of work experience in the All Black camp.