James Lawton: Johnson's decision to permit beer and WAGs may come back to haunt him


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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson may yet thrill us all with a brilliant World Cup campaign in New Zealand. First, though, it might be helpful if he cleared up a certain point of confusion.

It came while he was announcing his relaxed attitude towards drinking, individual professional responsibility and WAG attendance at one of the most vital challenges of his career. The England manager declared: "We're dealing with blokes, adults."

Which is it, Jonno, "blokes" or adults? Unfortunately, they are not always quite the same thing and if anyone should know this better than you it is probably only Judge Jeff Blackett, the Rugby Union disciplinary chief who three years ago was required to complete a 57-point disciplinary inquiry report when the team returned from the land of the Long White Cloud – and at least one Saturday night that stretched out until 7am of a Sunday morning.

Naturally the judge concluded that most of the damage done to the good name of English rugby was perpetrated by sensational reporting of allegations that some of the team had been guilty of sexual misbehaviour towards a young local woman – and that one remedy might be to make sure that members of the media were housed some distance from the team hotel, perhaps ideally – we have to speculate – on a prison ship moored in Auckland harbour.

However, some aspects of the Blackett judgement – it led to fines of £1,000 and £500 and reprimands for two players who admitted showing up for physiotherapy sessions directly from an extensive tour of Auckland nightlife – may have been worth at least a cursory re-examination by Johnson.

Here, for example, is point 57 of the judge's exhaustive reflections. "Without any credible and tested evidence of serious wrongdoing it is impossible to gainsay the players' own accounts of what occurred. The case has thus boiled down to errors of judgements by young players on their first or second major international tour which are insufficient in themselves to affect future England selection.

"No doubt in the past England players on tour have stayed out too late, drunk excessive amounts of alcohol, invited guests back to the team hotel and missed physiotherapist appointments or training the next morning." (Not to mention threatening to burn down whole hotels or neighbouring townships.) "Such activity is now inconsistent with the life of an elite professional rugby player in the modern era and membership of a team seeking to be the best in the world."

Flowing from the judge's findings came four recommendations to the incoming Johnson. He should warn players to avoid potentially compromising situations which might become public and thus bring discredit to the game (especially if some enterprising hack manages to slip over the side of the prison ship). Johnson was also advised to prohibit players from bringing unknown guests back to the hotel, set limits on the amount of alcohol a player may drink and make clear the limits of post-match entertainment.

However, the manager seems much more firmly attached to the philosophy of former England football coach Sven Goran Eriksson than his successor Fabio Capello. Undeterred by his experience at the 2004 European Championship, when the baggage of the England entourage included bouncy castles for the kids, Eriksson permitted the World Cup WAG circus of 2006 in Baden-Baden which provided such a garish backcloth to England's distinctly underwhelming performance.

Capello, quite appalled, then lurched into the monumental miscalculation that a bunch of hugely paid professionals could concentrate their minds on one of the great challenges of their careers for a few weeks of five-star accommodation in a remote corner of the high veld.

For the moment, the rugby man appears to be retaining the mailed fist as his last option, saying: "Things are far more organised these days but it is still down to players to make sensible decisions. I trust them to do that. If it turns out that I can't trust them, there will be a simple decision for me to make."

To be fair to the rugby team's predecessors in the last two World Cups, first and second places do not speak of professional dereliction. However, this is a newly forged team and when you consider that the young player around whom some of the highest hopes are gathering, Manu Tuilagi, a few months ago launched an astonishingly vicious attack on his England team-mate Chris Ashton, the idea of a touring party equipped with mature reactions to every situation may just err a little too far towards the fanciful.

One perspective seems particularly valuable. It was the one displayed by Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower, captain and coach of the all-conquering England cricket team. Despite some vigorous protest, not least by star batsman Kevin Pietersen, Strauss and Flower banned the WAGs until two months into a brilliantly successful tour of Australia last winter. It may have been entirely coincidental that their arrival in Perth preceded England's only reverse, in the third Test, in a crushing defence of the Ashes.

By then, though, Strauss and Flower were happy that the essential work of team bonding and day-by-day discipline had been done. They had, to put it another way, a team of adult professionals rather than touring blokes.

Lower profile? England's rugby WAGs

Whereas the football WAGs are a pretty well-known bunch, the England rugby team's WAGs tend to keep a lower profile – Zara Phillips excepted of course. The only other rugby WAG of note is Una Healy, a member of the all-girl pop group The Saturdays, who dates full-back Ben Foden.