James Lawton: Johnson left with nothing to cling to but his usual cussed defiance

Martin Johnson talked about the ground gained not the huge tracts lost. He had a position to defend and so, of course, he defended it. It was lonely work

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The Independent Online

It was over now but the big man Martin Johnson couldn't put down certain of those things which had become the foundation stones of his rugby life.

Things like bone-deep pride in achievement on the field and the need to stand four-square with the blokes, the "adults" in whom he had invested three of the most ultimately unproductive years of a career which had for so long been programmed only for the accumulation of success, hard-won, smashed-out, unforgiving of yourself and all those around you.

In this most unwelcome of dawns in New Zealand, a place where as a young player he learnt his first and most telling lessons about winning and losing, it was reasonable to believe that it was all wrecked now.

Certainly it was an idea hardly softened with the news that a campaign riddled with disciplinary problems had been given a last twist with a police warning of a charge of disorderly conduct against his star protégé Manu Tuilagi after allegations he had jumped from a ferry at the waterfront here.

Johnson sat beside Rob Andrew, the RFU professional rugby director who, having survived the wars of Twickenham that have left the Rugby Union the poster boys of big-time sports maladministration, announced matter-of-factly that his recommendations on quite a few things – including the fate of Johnson – would be delivered after a month or so of "robust" appraisal.

The embattled hero showed just one flash of emotion. It came as he spoke of his belief that the England team now packing its bags for home still has some claim on a brilliant future.

He said a lot of groundwork had been done and that in players like Chris Ashton and Ben Foden and Manu Tuilagi there were the ingredients of a new, winning England.

It was too soon to say that he would walk away – or seek to stay, just possibly stronger at the broken places and less ready to trust in his belief that athletes called to international duty would understand their responsibilities – and would always respond to an invitation to behave like professionals who could allocate a small segment of their lives to supremely concentrated effort.

Of course, he knows better now than when he made his announcement that there were would be no strongly drawn limits on alcohol, no curfews and no restrictions on the presence of WAGs. What we will not know for some time is whether he will be granted – by the RFU or himself – the chance to act upon his new, hard-won knowledge of the English professional rugby player in 2011.

Defiantly, he still reckoned that the indiscipline which so clouded the start of England's tournament, and persisted in some form or other on and off the field, contributed no more than 00.1 per cent to the disaster which reached such a shocking denouement here at Eden Park when England were so powerless to stifle the rebirth of the French belief in their ability to play rugby filled with life and panache and brutal force.

Johnson insisted that a fantastic group of coaches had been assembled, one filled with experience and knowledge and that in the World Cup of England in four years' time the benefits would be seen in the development of a new generation of players walking in the steps of Wilkinson and Shaw, Moody and Thompson.

Yet even as Johnson voiced his defiance a new list of contenders was taking shape out in the ether.

In some minds it is headed by Sir Ian McGeechan, a man of the world beyond the touchlines of the game in which he has distinguished himself as a pragmatic, Grand Slam-winning coach of Scotland and of the Lions.

There is talk of the heady Springbok Nick Mallett, out of his time with the Italians and his more abrasive, World Cup-winning compatriot Jake White. You hear a word, too, for Australia's Eddie Jones. All of this speculation about contenders from south of the Equator is powerfully fuelled by the brilliant tournament of Wales' latest adopted Kiwi, Warren Gatland.

Indeed, even as Johnson spoke with a solemn, and not undignified force, and you were reminded of all the qualities which are now being weighed by men whose judgements are based on a fragment of his knowledge of some of the most important realities of the game, it was hard to get the meaning of Gatland's work out of your head.

The trouble is that Gatland's young and thrusting Wales have been almost everything Johnson's England has not.

They have been hard and cool-headed and came into this tournament insisting that this might indeed be the great shot of their lives, the time when the alignment of the planets was perfectly disposed towards their ambitions.

Not the least cruel of Johnson's circumstances is that we saw the composure and the bite of Wales so close to the panicky confusion that consumed Johnson's England once it was clear that they were playing not blue-shirted imposters but a more than passably authentic France.

The older Ireland, with the great Brian O'Driscoll throwing in some of the last of his combative instincts, came back at Wales but only to discover they were up facing opponents of a special resilience – and aggressive devices.

Wales are being lauded here not just for their promise – the most vulnerable of assets as the tournament takes a serious turn – but for the strength and the consistency of their demeanour and their performance. They ran world champions South Africa to the point of expiry and when Ireland suggested they knew a little too much, they were cut down for their impertinence. This young Welsh team announced their own curfew even as Johnson was obliged to defend the indefensible.

Johnson, the old loyalist, talks about the future of men like Foden and Ashton and Tuilagi. Meanwhile, the likes of Rhys Priestland and George North and Jamie Roberts and, above all, the 23-year-old captain Sam Warburton announce their belief that the future might just be now.

It means that if many old case-hardened characters in this corner of the rugby world, and not least the World Cup-winning hooker Sean Fitzpatrick, see Wales as potentially a new and invigorating force in the game, others closer to home may reasonably behold them as England's supreme reproach.

Whatever happens in the semi-final against France, Wales have fulfilled their essential ambition. It was to come here and show the best of themselves. Johnson's misery on the morning of his accountability was the bleak knowledge that his team had consistently displayed not their best but quite often their worst.

Their performances were consistently far short of the highest standards here. In the group games they were dull and accident-prone in all but the training run against Romania seconds.

They talked more about their need for a few beers than even the smallest swig of contrition. They have served their critics one self-serving bromide after another. They have refused to face their own shortcomings and when it came to redemption time, when the French, apparently so broken, had to be put out of their misery, the English response was pathetic.

It had no hauteur or cleverness or understanding of the challenge that had been presented. It was the rawest panic.

Maybe understandably, Johnson refused to acknowledge this reality. He talked about the ground that had been gained, not the huge tracts of it lost.

He had a position to defend and so, of course, he did it. It was lonely work and if you had to admire him for the sheer, cussed defiance of it, you could still only weep for the weakness of his case.