When the mighty fall, they fall hard.
Martin Johnson might have axed himself, but still the crash reverberates across the landscape of English rugby union. Eventually, though, as after the felling of a vast oak, silence will descend again, disturbed only by a persistent whisper: what has the game learnt from big Johnno's travails and those of his wretched World Cup squad?
There is one thing, alas, that it has not learnt, and that is how, finally and brutally, to divorce professionalism from amateurism. Let me tell you about my daughter's 18-year-old friend Ollie, a fine all-round sportsman who recently started life at one of our better known seats of learning, and was keen to join the university rugby club. Ollie and his fellow first years were duly told to report for an initiation evening which, with great apprehension, for they had heard the stories, they did.
The initiation required them first to run naked to a public park. As they did so, senior players threw eggs at them. In the park, they were made to eat a packet of cat food each. Each lad was then asked to tuck a length of toilet paper up his backside, before being handed a pint of beer. The toilet paper was set alight, and the beer had to be downed before the flame got to the business end. Then there was more cat food, and more beer, with buckets strategically placed to hold the vomit, of which there was plenty. Finally, the boys, by now dressed in women's lingerie, were blindfolded and made to lie on the grass. At this point the contents of the buckets, into which the senior guys had also urinated, were chucked over them. Initiation over, they had become fully fledged members of the club, worthy of wearing the shirt, and no longer the silk camisole.
I have already described young Ollie's experience to some ugly old rugger buggers of my acquaintance, and they smiled, indulgently. One of them lamented the fact that things have got disappointingly tame since his day. All of them talked about bonding, about fraternity, which are also the words you hear from the pros when they seek to justify "a few beers" – that time-honoured rugby euphemism for getting ferociously hammered. "If the boys can't go out and have a few beers then it's a sad world we live in," said Mark Cueto in New Zealand. "Rugby player drinks beer shock," said Johnson himself, shrugging off the initial reports of the big night out in Queenstown.
In 2007, before he turned his big, cauliflower ears to the blandishments of the Rugby Football Union, I asked Johnson whether, if he ever did get back into the game as a coach or manager, he was concerned that failure might tarnish his glittering legacy as a player? "I wasn't afraid to play in a losing team and I'm not afraid of coaching one," he replied.
He wasn't then, and I don't suppose he is now. He departed the job as he began it, a man comfortable in his own skin, content in the knowledge that if any of us think less of him than we did before, that's our business, not his. In any case, it would be a peevish sort of person who watched Johnson leave the stage on Wednesday with any sense that his reputation as English rugby's supreme warrior-king, and a man of dignity and integrity, had suffered a mortal blow, or indeed any blow at all. But it's time now for someone to purge from the professional game the unhelpful vestiges of amateurism, a task that Johnson would never have considered, because he never thought it necessary. It's time to end the maudlin nonsense about bonding, and time to boot out of the park, perhaps even starting with the park where young Ollie was forced to eat cat food, the tired old argument that excessive drinking is a sacrosanct part of rugby culture.
We've read a lot about culture in the sports pages these last few days. The Wigan Athletic manager, Roberto Martinez, ascribes to "cultural disadjustment" the glob of phlegm that his Paraguayan defender Antolin Alcaraz let loose at Richard Stearman of Wolves; spitting's OK in Paraguay, apparently. And if Luis Suarez did call a black man "negrito" (which has not been proven), he is no racist because in Uruguayan culture it's fine to do so.
It was Samuel Johnson, no relation to Martin, who said that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel. Now it is perhaps likely that "culture" will become the last refuge, if not of a scoundrel, then of sporting professionals too ill-disciplined to behave in a manner prescribed by common decency, proper maturity, or at the very least, an enormous monthly pay cheque.
Golfing greats to debate at the 19th hole
Andy Farrell, not the titan of that name who graced both codes of rugby, but the former golf correspondent of this newspaper, has written a fascinating book called The 100 Greatest Ever Golfers (Elliot & Thompson, £14.99). It's as informative and authoritative as I would expect from a man who, in the media tent at any major golfing event, is invariably the first port of call for fellow hacks when they want to know what Walter Hagen's caddie was called, or even Walter Hagen's caddie's wife's manicurist.
As the author is the first to admit, 100 is an arbitrary figure with which to round up the game's all-time greats, and inevitably means the omissions are just as interesting as the inclusions. I might have left out Sergio Garcia, if it meant making room for Max Faulkner. There's no Dai Rees, either, or Tom Kite or Freddie Couples. But it's a book to argue with as well as to learn from. I recommend it wholeheartedly.Reuse content