The news that Rob Andrew has approached Martin Johnson to offer him a role as manager of the England rugby team should be greeted with a healthy degree of circumspection. Andrew’s record of taking decisive and forthright action in his current role is not exactly impressive and I for one will be reserving judgement until the exact terms of the offer are made public.
Until now, Andrew appears to have utterly failed to grasp the key point of management in top level sport. This is that one man must be put in sole charge, must pick his own lieutenants, have full licence to select his own team and must have the first and last word in all matters relating to the squad. Clive Woodward has often stated that he would have rejected the England job had these terms not been granted to him. Eddie O’Sullivan, Warren Gatland, Graham Henry and almost all other successful international coaches have been all-powerful in their domains.
Whether through pressure from the RFU, or through his own reluctance to put his head on the block, Andrew has thus far produced only fudge and compromise. It was very clear during Andy Robinson’s tenure that the problem lay as much in the structure of the coaching set-up as his own individual limitations. When Woodward jumped ship, the RFU did not seek a replacement but grafted the role of manager on to one of the coaches. This represented a failure to realise the truths that lay at the heart of England’s 2003 World Cup success – that one man was in complete charge and built a coherent team with a clear chain of accountability, with all members buying into and sharing his vision. The move was akin to removing the Chief Executive of a large business and not replacing him.
Andrew has had multiple opportunities to right this wrong and has taken none of them. When Robinson’s position became untenable, he was replaced by another individual who was pulled from the ranks and given a ‘compromise’ role. Another coach who’s strengths lay on the training field was asked to deal with the management side as well. The fact that it was presented as a short-term solution to get through to the World Cup yielded the hope that Andrew knew what needed to be done but judged, correctly, that now was not the time to do it. His actions after the World Cup have blasted those hopes out of the water in no uncertain terms.
This time, there must be no compromise. If Martin Johnson, or anyone else for that matter, is to be offered the job, it must be on their terms and they must be given licence to do whatever they see fit. The positive is that Johnson, unlike Ashton and Robinson, will not accept the job unless his demands are granted. The negative is that the noises coming from Andrew, and indeed Ashton, are not all that encouraging.
Ashton has requested the installation of a manager, but with the caveat that they have no say in rugby affairs. This shows that he does not appreciate the root of the predicament in which he, and England rugby finds himself. It also betrays the fact that he merely wants someone else to face up to the questions of a frustrated media.
The concern is that Andrew will accede to his demands. First of all, the introduction of a nominal manager would further cloud the accountability at the top of England rugby, already muddied by the lack of an overall team supremo and the presence of Andrew in his apparent non-entity of a job. Secondly, no decent, ambitious, top-level manager – Johnson, White, Gatland etc – would even consider agreeing to such a role as they are fully aware that it is unworkable.
There is no room for sentiment or compromise this time. Andrew and the RFU cannot hide behind bare and overly-flattering statistics for they are deceptive. In years to come a casual observer may look back at the 2007-08 season, see that England finished second in the World Cup and the Six Nations and assume that it had been a fairly successful period. Those of us who sat through the debacles against South Africa, Wales and Scotland and the stuttering win over Italy will remember otherwise. In 20 years of watching England, the only other time I have watched 4 such grisly performances in quick succession was on the Tour to Hell in 1998. Yet that was the 3rd/4th team being thrown to the lions on an ill-advised and ultimately meaningless tour. On this occasion it has been the 1st team, with all possible resources at their disposal, playing at the sharp end of international rugby and producing a quite staggering level of inconsistency. That inconsistency is symptomatic of a squad receiving mixed messages and who are unclear on what is being demanded of them on any given day.
Reports suggest that we need not worry that the status quo will prevail as certain members of the RFU have informed Andrew that the retention of the coaching team in its present form is not an option. This puts even larger question marks over Andrew’s role. He has been asked to make a recommendation to the Board but has been told that certain options are unacceptable. That the RFU feel the need to tell him this does not reflect a huge amount of confidence that their man will come up with the right answer. If they think they know the solution, and are not convinced Andrew will find it, why not cut out the middle man?
For all his lack of experience in managing rugby teams at any sort of level, Martin Johnson knows what it takes to succeed in elite sport. He was a central figure in one of the most successful and innovative elite sporting organisations of modern times and will bring that experience with him. It remains for us to hope that Andrew and his men are brave enough to dispense with sentimentality and compromise and realise what it takes to achieve success. If they really believe Johnson is their man, then they must give him undiluted power; not just a job on the estate, but the keys to the mansion. Evolution has failed, revolution and a full clear-out is required. It is not just one of many options, it is the only way forward
by Stuart Peel