Johnson pulls off coup by sidestepping RFU bigwigs

New man in full control but not many emerge from shambles with credit
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The Independent Online

As the first and last Englishman to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, Martin Johnson is qualified to lead the Red Rose revolution. He is not qualified in other fields, apart from after-dinner speaking, but the Rugby Football Union, or more specifically their elite rugby director, Rob Andrew, are confident they have got the right man for the job. If not, they will look even more desperate than usual.

Despite a statement last week from Francis Baron, the chief executive at Twickenham, that he wanted evolution and that he hoped Brian Ashton would remain as coach, Johnson and Andrew look as if they have del-ivered a coup. Members of the RFU management board, who have been supporting Andrew's initiatives, did not know that Ashton had lost his job until they read about it on Tuesday. This is not, the RFU maintained, about "hiring and firing", yet they hired Johnson and fired Ashton.

Throughout this shambolic affair the messages have been confused and distorted, and the fresh impression is that the people who think they run the RFU have been sidestepped by ex-player power in the form of Johnson and Andrew. Baron had said that Johnson's appointment as team manager would not involve coaching. On Friday, when the World Cup-winning captain of 2003 returned to Twickenham, Johnson said he would wear a tracksuit when appropriate.

"A team manager," Baron had said, "can sometimes be a No 1 or a No 2." But everybody knew that Johnson, being Johnson, would never settle for second best. He now has the power to take over, sooner or later, the whole damn shooting match.

Ashton, who had been assured by Andrew last December that he would have the final call on a team manager, stood no chance. They say he is not suing the Union and that he will return to his former post at the National Academy, but that will still involve working with Johnson and Andrew. And who will be able to look Ashton in the eye?

When Ashton, in a previous life, was head of the Academy, Lawrence Dallaglio asked why the best coach in England – Ashton – was running the Under-11s. That all changed after the last World Cup, when Dallaglio was not considered the first-choice No 8 and said that England (they were within inches of scoring the only try in the final against South Africa) resembled a pub team. Such views in the Red Rose garden helped to make and break Ashton. The second-half collapse against Wales at Twickenham in the Six Nations opener was a clincher. England could not tolerate being runners-up to the Welsh, who had a brand-new coaching team.

Johnson is 66-1 to beat Sir Clive Woodward's record of 23 consecutive England wins at Twickenham. "Martin will bring a new and fresh approach to team development and preparation in his own inimitable style," Andrew said. This is the expectation, but inimitable style? Johnson has never coached or managed a team in his life. But you have to start somewhere and he is starting at the top, with full managerial control.

"I'm passionate about the England team and delivering success," Johnson said. "This is a tremendously exciting time for English rugby, it's about performing at a level where we have every chance of beating most teams around the world... to create an environment where the guys can thrive in a team culture. I've no coaching experience but I've a lot of experience in rugby over the last 16 years. This game is always about players, not the ego of the coaches."

Funnily enough, nobody has consulted the players about the Red Rose revolution. As for an ego, if Ashton had one he never showed it, and that was part of his problem. Very few people have come out of this sordid business with any credit. Andrew's report following the World Cup in France was flawed; all the squad needed, he said, was a team manager, but he had no intention of sidelining Ashton.

Johnson is fortunate on a number of counts: he will choose his elite squad of 32 when the new agreement between the Union and the clubs kicks in during the summer; he will not be in New Zealand for the two forthcoming Tests; his appointment was said to be unanimous on the management board, while the RFU Council, on the other hand, is in "riot mode".

That will not bother Johnson. He has got what he wanted.