James Lawton: Andrew is Houdini as Johnson falls on sword

RFU must repair the damage it created ... starting by teaching the players discipline

James Lawton
Thursday 17 November 2011 01:00
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Martin Johnson and Mike Tindall didn’t see eye to eye in New Zealand
Martin Johnson and Mike Tindall didn’t see eye to eye in New Zealand

In the end, Martin Johnson did what he had to do. He looked at his situation, saw how the meaning of his life in rugby had been so reduced by his failure to understand the values and priorities of a new generation of England players and decided that already he had made a few too many compromises.

Johnno the coach, the man required to lead one step removed from the trenches, was always a huge gamble, an investment in the mysteries of aura and example. And whatever patchwork of survival might have been created for him in the wake of the appalling World Cup experience, it would surely not have been enough to underpin his old sense of who he was and the kind of honour he carried from a superbly competitive playing career.

Whoever replaces him, whether it is the proven old winner, and sports politician, Sir Clive Woodward, or the sophisticated South African Nick Mallett or some hard-driving candidate yet to be announced, there is no doubt where the new man's priority must lie.

It is in imposing new levels of discipline and priorities in a squad which proved itself psychologically completely unfit for purpose in New Zealand.

Certainly it is not hard to identify the central weakness of Johnson's regime, quite apart from a general belief that his coaching squad was in need of some serious refreshing and that it was a huge reach in the modern technocrat game to install a man who had no practical experience of running a team, any team.

You had to know Johnson was in trouble the moment he announced that England's World Cup campaign would in some respects go back to the time when a rugby tour was for many of its participants a chance to re-enact some of the more extravagant moments of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.

No, England didn't raze the tourist township of Queenstown to the ground, but they did behave in a way that separated them from any serious consideration as a unit plainly programmed to produce some of the best rugby of their lives.

Johnson said there would be no curfews and no restrictions on Wags – in sharp contrast to the brilliant Ashes campaign of England in Australia last winter. He said he was in charge of a group of blokes and adults, and if you worried about this, he did offer the reassurance that if his trust was betrayed he would then have to make some decisions of his own.

Unfortunately he didn't, not even after the England campaign had become a laughing stock and the extent of the betrayal of his trust reached the point where his vice-captain Mike Tindall told him outright lies.

Johnson's last chance was to make a stand, send Tindall on his way and lay down some new requirements. Instead, the anarchy developed to the point where the last statement of England's campaign was for their youngest player to jump from a ferry into Auckland harbour.

Former captain Will Carling, who took England to the 1991 World Cup final and was part of what seemed at the time some inexorable drive to exploit the burgeoning age of professionalism and England's huge playing population, had a withering reaction to that last stupidity. Carling said that if he had been part of that England squad he too would have experienced an irresistible impulse to leap into the sea.

Of course, by falling on his sword Johnson has in one sense merely underlined the chronic confusion that grips the Rugby Football Union. It has more reviews than the New York Times book supplement but with little or no indication that it is in danger of getting to the heart of its problems. Now, at least it has the chance to draw some kind of rough line in the quagmire.

It has to look at both its organisation and its psychology. It has to forget the remnants of that triumphalism which came with the World Cup victory of 2003 and the remarkable arrival, against all the odds, in the 2007 final in Paris. It has to see that not only has it failed – that can happen to the most stringently marshalled campaigns, ask the All Blacks, who are still a little numb after their deliverance from so many years of World Cup disappointment – but in the process it has been exposed quite profoundly in its lack of understanding of the challenge.

Rob Andrew, apparently so pivotal to the development of "elite" English rugby down the years, has come to rival the old Mafia chieftain John Gotti for the title of Teflon Man. He sat, at an appropriate distance, beside Johnson on the morning after the World Cup dismissal and you could only marvel at the level of escapology as Johnson growled his defiance under the weight of the heaviest criticism.

There is one overwhelming imperative facing the man who takes over from Johnson. It is to re-shape the mentality of the England squad. It is to carry it into the realm of serious competition, where a trip to the World Cup is not some laddish adventure but the enterprise of serious, grown-up competitors.

Also, of course, there is the requirement of another kind of authority, the one which comes with a proven coaching record at the highest level. The appointment of Johnson was never more than a hopeful lunge. It depended on his ability to impose himself on a totally new challenge.

He thought it was a small step from the kind of leadership he imposed in the heat of the action. It was not – and he realised soon enough. Now the Rugby Football Union has to start repairing the damage that it did so much to create. A little humility might provide a profitable start.

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