Doomed from the start: why Johnson was the wrong man
Lack of coaching experience led to a 'prehistoric' regime shorn of creativity necessary for success at top level, writes Chris Hewett
It was born under a bad sign – the stars were out of alignment from the start, thanks to the despicable, hole-in-the-corner way the Twickenham hierarchy behaved in ending Brian Ashton's tenure as the head coach of the England rugby team –and it ended in a black hole of the governing body's own making. Martin Johnson, betrayed by some of his best-known players and befuddled by the demands of running a major international sporting concern without a scintilla of relevant experience on which to draw, knew there was only one sensible decision to make, and he made it yesterday. If only his decision-making had always been so clear-minded, so decisive, so right.
For a little over three and a half years, the finest red-rose player of the post-war era – a man who led two Lions tours, captained his country to a world title, emerged from his many tussles with the All Blacks honours even and won every available domestic club trophy (most of them more than once) – attempted to deliver what his supporters on the Rugby Football Union, most notably the long-serving chairman Martyn Thomas, blithely assumed was in his gift: concrete success based on something rather less tangible, namely the aura that had underpinned his perfectly reasonable claim to be judged among the greatest of modern lock forwards. What Johnson did on the pitch, he could replicate in the dressing room. So went the theory.
The theory was wrong. More than that, it was infantile – the product of grown-up minds bent out of shape by childish assumptions that had no grounding in sporting logic or sporting history. Johnson had never coached anyone, managed anyone, organised a training schedule or picked a side, yet Thomas, recently stripped of every last one of his many Twickenham roles, was among those who convinced themselves that none of this mattered. At some point during a fraught and fractious 2008 Six Nations, Johnson joined them by convincing himself. A few weeks before, he had publicly stated that he would "not be so arrogant" as to imagine he could start a new kind of rugby career at the very top. Another if only...
Where did it go wrong? It would save time to ask if any of it went right. England struggled horribly in early stages of the regime – heavy defeats by southern hemisphere opposition in the autumn of '08 was followed by a Six Nation campaign that was half-cocked at best – and throughout, there were mutterings from players about the joylessness of the red-rose gatherings, the narrowness of the management team's approach to strategy and tactics, the prehistoric nature of training. One front-row forward returning, in some considerable pain, from bone-crunching "full contact" sessions at the team's country hotel base in Surrey, was heard to say: "Out of date? Jesus. It's prehistoric."
That Johnson and his hand-picked coaching staff – John Wells and Brian Smith, Mike Ford and Graham Rowntree (and, whenever Jonny Wilkinson was up for selection, the kicking specialist Dave Alred) – had every advantage an England coach could have craved made it all the more depressing. Their access to players was way beyond the wildest dreams of Ashton or Andy Robinson, the two men who had coached the side following Clive Woodward's abrupt departure in 2004; the money lavished on the squad was of Woodwardesque proportions. Yet at no point was there a clear sense of direction.
Occasionally, after a really gruesome performance, there would be an outburst from a player: Nick Easter, the Harlequins No 8, went public with his dissatisfaction after the deadly dull 2010 Six Nations game in Rome; there were crisis meetings following the defeat in Paris a few weeks later and the jaw droppingly shambolic failure against the Wallabies in Perth that summer; there were strong rumours of another player-led delegation to the coaches after the World Cup warm-up loss to Wales in Cardiff as recently as August. Sometimes, these flare-ups produced something positive, but there was something in Johnson's ultra-conservative rugby DNA that dragged the team back down the mountainside sooner rather than later.
Even his success in landing this year's Six Nations title, England's first since the manager himself spearheaded a famous Grand Slam victory in Dublin in 2003, was soured by a crushing defeat on the same kind of occasion, in the self-same city, in the final match. And anyway, it had long been clear that his side had no realistic chance of making a serious mark on the World Cup in New Zealand. If Johnson had introduced, rather belatedly, the likes of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Ben Youngs and Courtney Lawes to Test rugby, he had turned his face away from some of the best and brightest in the land – Danny Cipriani and Olly Barkley, Mathew Tait and Luke Narraway – and left them wondering what the hell and why. Come the global event in All Black country, England were virtually bereft of the kind of footballing ability that allowed the hosts, Australia, Wales and France to advance to the business end.
When push came to shove, there was no discipline either – no teamship, no common focus, only a veneer of camaraderie. Johnson's refusal to impose an alcohol ban for the duration of the tournament and his reluctance to crack down hard on miscreants the moment they misbehaved appeared at first to be the consequence of a determination to treat players like adults, to prove to the watching world that when he talked about "trust" he was doing more than paying lip service to the word. Quickly, it became obvious that the manager was still prey to his own player's instincts. The separation between the man in charge and the men in his charge was nowhere near decisive enough.
If it is impossible to imagine that Ashton would have allowed the likes of Cipriani and Tait to wither on the vine, it is almost ludicrous to suppose that the many and varied breaches of discipline in the Land of the Long White Cloud would have occurred under Robinson's gimlet eye. Come to that, they might not have happened if a captain as professional and dedicated as Steve Borthwick had still been involved. But Johnson got rid of him, at the wrong moment and in the wrong way. At least yesterday, he made the right call in the right way. It is over, and England can move on.
How Johnno measures up: Records of the previous four incumbents
Martin Johnson (2008-11)
Games coached 38
Wins 21 Defeats 16 Draws 1
Win percentage 55.3
High point Won Six Nations in 2011
Brian Ashton (2006-08)
Games coached 22
Wins 12 Defeats 10 Draws 0
Win percentage 54.5
High point Reached World Cup final in France, 2007
Andy Robinson (2004-06)
Games coached 22
Wins 9 Defeats 13 Draws 0
Win percentage 40.9
High point Beat South Africa (twice) and Australia at Twickenham
Sir Clive Woodward (1997-2004)
Games coached 83
Wins 59 Defeats 22 Draws 2
Win percentage 71.1
High points Won Six Nations in 2000, 2001 and 2003, doing the Grand Slam in 2003. Won 2003 World Cup in Australia.
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