He is quite a charmer these days, the old beetle-browed bruiser from Leicester who stood there in the eye of so many storms with a "bring it on" glint in his eye. Martin Johnson, the new England team manager and the most powerful guv'nor of the national side since Sir Clive Woodward left Twickenham with a two-fingered farewell, returned to the old cabbage patch with a smile on his beaten-up face and a good word to say for everybody. What was more, he admitted to feeling a little fearful about the challenges ahead.
"Of course there is some trepidation," he said. "Quite rightly, there are high expectations of England teams in every sport, and dealing with the pressure that brings will be a major part of the job. Ever since I stopped playing, people have asked me: 'Martin, when are you coming back to sort it out?' I don't know what they meant by 'sorting it', but I'm coming into this with my eyes open and with a full understanding of the responsibilities this position carries. If I fail, it won't be for the want of trying."
The 38-year-old former captain was as brutally honest about his shortage of pedigree in the fields of coaching and management as he had been brutally aggressive during his days in the engine rooms of England and the Lions. "I'm fully aware of my lack of experience and I consulted more people before taking the decision to do this than over any other decision I've ever made. From my perspective, this is about creating an environment and a culture in which some of the best players in the world can thrive. It's about developing the right ethos. With the right people around me, I think we can get the job done.
"People have said I might ruin my reputation by taking this on, that I have too much to lose. I'm not worried about that, because I'm not in this to protect my reputation, or to boost my ego, or for financial reasons. I've never allowed myself to get carried away with the iconic status thing. You judge yourself in this game, and I know the truth. I was, and very definitely still am, human. I can't say I imagined coming back into rugby in a position like this, but after two years away from the game, I was ready to get involved somewhere. It just so happens that this opportunity has presented itself."
Johnson will have full control of team selection, and has two immediate priorities: the piecing together of a party to travel to New Zealand in June for a two-Test series against the All Blacks and the drawing together of an Elite Player Squad for next season. He will not dirty his hands with tracksuited coaching work more often than he can help, but he will oversee the four specialist technicians who operated alongside Ashton and have survived the mini-cull: John Wells, Mike Ford, Graham Rowntree and Jon Callard.
Even though he has inherited this quartet from Ashton, who in turn inherited Wells and Ford from Andy Robinson, the new man seems happy enough, despite the urgings of Woodward and others that he be given a free hand to create a new coaching team of his own design and limitless amounts of RFU money with which to finance it. "These will be the coaches going forward," Johnson confirmed. He added that a new attack coach – a position that would have suited Ashton perfectly – would be appointed when the right man became available. Would he have to be English? "No, he would not."
Talking of Ashton, was it true that Johnson had made it a condition of his acceptance that the incumbent be moved off the roster? "It never arose, because from the outset, Brian made it clear he didn't want to be No 2 in the set-up," he replied. Then he added: "It's good to change the coaching staff at times – to bring in new ideas." Rather like Rob Andrew, the man who dangled the management carrot before him, Johnson shed precious little light on this darkest of subjects.
"Of course I have sympathy for Brian," he continued. "There were times during all this when I didn't feel comfortable and I'm sure it has been worse for him. He's passionate about his rugby and the way he believes it should be played. It's been difficult for him, all this. Very difficult."
The die is cast, though. Ashton is out, Johnson is in. Rather like the man he has replaced, the greatest second-row forward seen in northern hemisphere union in the post-war era – a player fit to stand alongside the greatest southern-hemisphere lock, John Eales of Australia – believes game plans to be less important than attitude.
"When England have won big World Cup matches in the last 20 minutes, was it about the game plan? There was a bit of that. But was it more to do with players having the confidence to win? Of course it was."
Johnson has never been short of that kind of confidence. The trick will be to show those in his charge how they can have it too.Reuse content