Enough compromise, Johnson must be offered complete control of the England squad

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

5 thoughts on “Enough compromise, Johnson must be offered complete control of the England squad

  1. Stuart – I certainly agree with your views on RA and your assertion that there needs to be one man in charge. Just not sure it’s Johnno. Of course the man is a legend. But for three years he’s been away from the game, and he’s had little or no coaching experience. I know we’re looking for more than coaching here, but does Johnno have any track record of managing? If the RFU or one of the prem clubs had persuaded him into a coaching/managerial role when we ceased playing, and he had since proved himself with success in that role, then I would be all for it.
    What needs to happen, is for RA and BA to be fired, SCW to be given RA’s role, Shaun Edwards hired as head coach and told to hire the specialists he wants. In that scenario, I’m not sure whether there is a role for someone like Johnno.
    In reality, what will probably happen is that Johnno will say no thank you and we will instead find someone who will accept a meaningless role and being associated with failure while have little ability to influence it. And then after the 2011 RWC we’ll hire Jake White. While I think he could be pretty successful with England, like you Stuart, I don’t think that is the right direction at all.

  2. Agreed. Not 100% sure Johnson is the right man myself, but if we’re going to offer him the job, he has to have total control. Woodward used to talk about creating a ‘no excuses environment’. Well England have spent 3 years making excuses because they haven’t had the right structure in place. It can’t go on like that.

  3. Yes – it’s all about getting some accountability, and nobody should be accountable without proper control.
    Changing the subject a little, it will be interesting to see what happens to Lol Dallaglio after this season. I get the impression he won’t be able to walk away from rugby (and certainly not Wasps) and will probably take a coaching/managerial role immediately. And maybe he is a better long term potential than Johnno for the England set up – similar lead by example/over my dead body approach, but a little more articulate and maybe someone who can adapt more capably to a different role. Will be interesting.

  4. I wouldn’t say the 98 Tour of Hell was the only tour to plumb the same depths as this year’s 6 Nations Stuart – you could say the same about just about any of our ill-conceived summer tours down under in recent years.

    We can only hope that this year’s tour is slightly less of a shambles with the RWC a long way off and fewer key players needing to rest, but I’m not banking on it.

    The best thing Andrew could do is to step down himself, but that will never happen. I agree with you though Stuart, there’ll be changes if only to avoid being seen to do nothing and to buy time for those changes to bear fruit.

    I think Johnno could do a good job for us. The role that’s being talked about is a management one and although he’s not a hands-on coach I’d back him to pick and evolve a strong coaching team to work under him.

    Whilst he has no experience, it’s a unique role, so there’s no other role like it out there for him to gain any experience in. He has a great rugby brain though and worked under a highly successful regime, and knows when to change things and when not to.

    I’m not remotely convinced that it will all fall in to place though. Andrew is only talking to Johnno because he’s been told to, and will live in fear of being upstaged by him. Johnno’s no Campese, but he does speak his mind, and he’s also been lucky to work under good leaders and might now need to work under a gutless yes-man.

    I certainly don’t see Johnno taking the role immediately – his wife is apparently in the middle of a complicated pregnancy and the baby is due in the middle of the tour to NZ. Hopefully though, he can be given the right role and level of autonomy to persuade him when the time is right for him. After all, we’ve underperformed for a number of years now, so appointing someone this week is not essential – getting the right person for the job is.

    I’d like to see Woodward come back and do the role instead of pretending that his role with the BOC is an exciting one! I can’t see it though – whilst I am a huge Woodward fan, he would see it as an admission that he was wrong to go and might have to work to overcome his parting comments at some of the club owners (albeit the new agreement will make it less of an issue) and SCW simply doesn’t do climbdowns!

    As I see it, that leaves Johnno as the best candidate. He may not have the experience, but no one else out there has. He does however posses the two key things missing from England Rugby right now – leadership skills and honesty – in spades.

  5. I agree that there have been other summer tour debacles but the Tour of Hell was the one which made a huge impact and which people remember. In the same way people will remember England producing some truly shameful efforts recently, albeit during a time when they managed to cobble together a few brave victories. This is not a period peopoe will look back on with any degree of pride or fondness, despite coming 2nd in 2 competitions.

    Besides Johnson, there is a gentleman by the name of Jake White who seems rather interested in the job and I hear he has some pedigree. He has proclaimed himself interested in the England job and a week later he announced that he was not interested in the Ireland job. He is clearly not just angling for a return to international rugby but specifically to manage England. He’s the World Cup winning coach for Christ’s sake; I reckon he at least warrants an interview.

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