Rugby: England's manager makes the right call - at last

By Chris Hewett

It was born under a bad sign - thanks to the despicable, hole-in--corner way the Twickenham hierarchy ended Brian Ashton's tenure as head coach of the England rugby team - and it ended in a black hole of the governing body's own making.

Martin Johnson, betrayed by some of his best-known players and befuddled by the demands of running a major international sporting concern without a scintilla of relevant experience, knew there was only one sensible decision, and he made it yesterday. If only his decision-making had always been so clear-minded, so decisive, so right.

For a little over three and a half years, the finest red-rose player of the postwar era - a man who led two Lions tours, captained his country to a world title, emerged from his many tussles with the All Blacks honours even and won every available domestic club trophy - attempted to deliver what his supporters on the Rugby Football Union, notably the long-serving chairman Martyn Thomas, blithely assumed was in his gift: concrete success based on something less tangible, namely the aura that had underpinned his perfectly reasonable claim to be judged among the greatest of modern lock forwards.

What Johnson did on the pitch, he could replicate in the dressing room. So went the theory.

The theory was wrong. More than that, it was infantile, with no grounding in logic or history. Johnson had never coached anyone, managed anyone, organised a training schedule or picked a side, yet Thomas, recently stripped of every last one of his many Twickenham roles, was among those who convinced themselves that none of this mattered.

At some point during a fraught and fractious 2008 Six Nations, Johnson convinced himself. A few weeks before, he had publicly stated that he would "not be so arrogant" as to imagine he could start a new kind of rugby career at the very top. Another if only ...

Where did it go wrong? It would save time to ask if any of it went right.

England struggled horribly in early stages of the regime - heavy defeats by Southern Hemisphere opposition in the autumn of 2008 was followed by a Six Nations campaign that was half-cocked at best - and throughout there were mutterings from players about the joylessness of the red-rose gatherings and the narrowness of the management team's approach to strategy and tactics.

One front-row forward returning, in considerable pain, from bone-crunching "full contact" training at the hotel base in Surrey, was heard to say: "Out of date? Jesus, it's prehistoric."

That Johnson and his hand-picked coaching staff - John Wells and Brian Smith, Mike Ford and Graham Rowntree (and, whenever Jonny Wilkinson was up for selection, the kicking specialist Dave Alred) - had every advantage an England coach could have craved made it all the more depressing.

Their access to players was way beyond the wildest dreams of Ashton or Andy Robinson, the two men who had coached the side following Clive Woodward's abrupt departure in 2004; the money lavished on the squad was of Woodwardesque proportions. Yet at no point was there a clear sense of direction.

Occasionally, after a really gruesome performance, there would be an outburst from a player: Nick Easter, the Harlequins' No8, went public with his dissatisfaction after the deadly dull 2010 Six Nations game in Rome; there were crisis meetings following the defeat in Paris a few weeks later and the jaw-droppingly shambolic failure against the Wallabies in Perth; there were strong rumours of another player-led delegation to the coaches after the World Cup warm-up loss to Wales in Cardiff as recently as August.

Even his success in landing this year's Six Nations title, England's first since the manager himself spearheaded a famous Grand Slam victory in Dublin in 2003, was soured by a crushing defeat on the same kind of occasion, in the self-same city, in the final match.

And anyway, it had long been clear that his side had no realistic chance of making a serious mark on the World Cup in New Zealand. If Johnson had introduced, rather belatedly, the likes of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Ben Youngs and Courtney Lawes to test rugby, he had turned his face away from some of the best and brightest - Danny Cipriani and Olly Barkley, Mathew Tait and Luke Narraway - and left them wondering what the hell and why.

It is almost ludicrous to suppose that the many breaches of discipline in New Zealand would have occurred under Robinson's gimlet eye. Come to that, they might not have happened if a captain as professional and dedicated as Steve Borthwick had still been involved.

But Johnson got rid of him, at the wrong moment and in the wrong way. At least yesterday, he made the right call in the right way. It is over, and England can move on.

- Independent

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