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

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.

Suggested Topics
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick