When two tribes go to war, Johnson is the perfect general
Manager ready for Friday fight night in Wales
Sunday 30 January 2011
Martin Johnson, a touchy-feely individual. Sounds right? No, of course it does not. This is the hard-headed World Cup-winner, famous for telling it as he sees it, for imposing a rigidity upon the England team he manages which fits with the stern, beetle-browed look he directs at the rest of the world.
Except that is not Johnson either. He is far more of a people person than he is ever given credit for, but those people – by and large we are talking about players here – do have to conform to a certain ethic. Put simply, they have to be honest and they have to be willing to play for each other.
Johnson was only 12 when the late Chalkie White's term as Leicester coach came to an end but the words of the older man live on. "I tell players that if they cheat me on the training field, they'll cheat their team-mates in the game and in other aspects of life," White once said and Johnson, arguably the most famous individual to emerge from the Leicester stable (alongside Sir Clive Woodward, his World Cup coach in 2003), would agree.
"Arsène Wenger once said to me, 'I want to win but the players have to meet me halfway'," Johnson said. "On this job, a lot of it is about how people tick but you need guys motivated to come and play. I don't expect my coaches to motivate players, they must want to play.
"It's what some people have and some people don't have, the difference between the successful player and the guy who doesn't quite make it." This is what Johnson has been working towards ever since he took up his tenure as England manager in July 2008, a squad of players of like-minded commitment which took shape in last year's Six Nations' Championship, developed on tour in Australia last summer and now heads into World Cup year eager for that next step.
Have injuries and suspensions prior to the Six Nations, which begins against Wales on Friday, upset that rhythm? Johnson has lost Lewis Moody, Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes to physical damage and Delon Armitage and Dave Attwood to the judiciary, but argues that the rhythm is fine. He backs his claim by stating publicly that (a) the players in his squad are there because they are the best in the country and (b) he would be willing to start any one of them against Wales, whether they have 60 caps or none.
There is a lot of rhetoric in sport but it is not a language Johnson recognises. He looks instead at the qualities of England's two qualifiers for the knock-out phase of the Heineken Cup, Leicester and Northampton. That one is his old club and the other their East Midlands rivals who have, on their staff, a fair injection of Leicester blood, is neither here nor there. For all he cares, it could be Harlequins and London Wasps, or Bath and Gloucester. The important element is the work ethic which has driven Northampton to the top of the Premiership this season and which is part of the DNA of Leicester, the 2010 champions.
"Players from those clubs have to come and play within a slightly different system with England, though the two are not dissimilar," Johnson said. "You can't be too much a product of what you do at your club, but the important thing is the passion and work ethic you show for your club."
These are hard and fast rules which were imbued in Johnson as a youngster, took practical form during his time as a teenager playing for New Zealand's King Country and have governed his approach, not just to rugby but to life, ever since. Surely, though, as he approaches his 41st birthday, there have been modifications, the compromises we all make within relationships, at home or in the workplace?
Primarily he has had to adjust to what the players he manages know or, more importantly, do not know. Let's call it game understanding. It is something that has always appeared to be inherent in New Zealand, once was in Wales but has not always appeared to be the case for England.
The atmosphere in which today's players compete is more febrile now than in his day: highs and lows are magnified, via the media, as never before; opinions of players and spectators, never mind professional commentators, fly around the world on social networking sites.
You could argue that Johnson had his "tour from hell" moment in the autumn of 2009, when player after player dropped out of his autumn squad with injury and the southern hemisphere feasted on English bones. Just as Woodward's 1998 trawl through the southern hemisphere, failing to win a match, hardened the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Josh Lewsey and Phil Vickery into the World Cup-winners they became five years later.
Johnson observes that his squad is still in transition, that this time last year the likes of Ben Foden, Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton had yet to start an international. For many of Friday's starting XV, it will be their first visit to the Millennium Stadium and that simply staying in Cardiff on the eve of a Test is different from a week in Sydney prior to beating Australia in June last year, because of the history between the two tribes either side of the Severn Bridge.
"There will be anxiety, nerves, adrenalin but also lots of good things we need to harness and turn into positives," Johnson said. He has come to understand that this is an important part of his role too: to convey to young players what they must expect; to translate his experiences of winning a World Cup, leading a successful Lions tour, earning a grand slam.
He does it as simply as possible because, for him, rugby is a simple game. But he cannot take decisions for his players, he can only help create a framework in which they recognise both what they have to do and what their opponents seek to do. "We're competitive now, we have a good mix of older players and under-25s, the future is there," Johnson said, although the present is recognised by the incontestable fact that the current England squad has little more than half the number of caps a World Cup-winning squad would expect.
"We want to go down [to Cardiff] and play how we want to play," he says, which is what England did not do in their last international, against South Africa in November, nor against Australia in Perth last June. In 2003, Johnson had a squad which knew it could do that, whatever the opposition; in 2011, his players are still discovering whether they can.
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