Martin Johnson was finally handed overall control of the England rugby team today after several weeks of speculation. It is a huge relief that a conclusion has finally been reached and the RFU can hopefully stop embarrassing themselves and the whole English game. In truth the appointment has been on the cards for a while but I for one refused to believe it until it was officially announced, as I rather suspected that the RFU would find some spectacular and original way of messing it up.
And so we welcome back the hero and live in hope that the big man can cure all the ills and right all the wrongs which have bedevilled the England team these 5 years. It remains to be seen whether Johnson, with no management experience, can wave a magic wand and transform the England team overnight. What is certain though he that he will be cut a lot more slack than his two predecessors were by the English rugby public.
I found myself slightly shocked at the amount of vitriol directed at Ashton when he never seemed to me to be the root of the problem. His big error was accepting the watered down terms offered by the RFU in the first place. Once he had done that, his hands were tied rather, although that does not excuse some of the more bizarre selection decisions of the 21st Century.
The best news is that Johnson appears not to have stood for any of the RFU’s pussy-footing. He has demanded full control of his coaching team and the selection of the players, and quite right too. He must stand and fall by that and he knows it. This is best for all concerned as there is no room for doubt regarding accountability and, knowing this, Johnson will leave no stone unturned when it comes to getting precisely what he wants. Hopefully he will act as a rocket up the proverbials of the establishment, a la Woodward a decade ago.
The most interesting part of the next few months, barring who is appointed to take the side to New Zealand, will be how Johnson deals with Rob Andrew. There is an ever-growing suspicion that he is not equipped to take the big decisions and that nobody really knows what it is he is supposed to be doing. Johnson has no use for deadwood and will not be averse to making his point in this respect. Andrew’s big job appears to have been to appoint the England Head Coach but he has messed it up twice and on the third occasion the RFU overrode him, told him who they wanted and did not leave him alone until he had got him. If this is the only way to make things work then what is he doing there in the first place? He is in danger of becoming something of a victim being used by the RFU to shield them from accountability.
The RFU must learn from the whole sorry episode. If Johnson is successful, and there is little reason why he shouldn’t be, there is the danger that they will say ‘Well we got there in the end and the end justifies the means’. It doesn’t. Not by a long way. The whole thing has been a disgrace and you strongly suspect that the grandees, were they to find themselves in a brewery with a load of booze, some guests in fancy dress and a set of party-organising instructions, would hold a series of meetings over several months to figure out what on earth they were supposed to be doing. On the day that those responsible for messing up the launch of Heathrow Terminal 5 were handed their P45s, the RFU should remind themselves that in any other field of business, several people would have been fired immediately for such mishandling.
The treatment of Brian Ashton has been beyond the pale. Had they just sacked him after the 6 Nations then that would have been fine, regardless of whether you agreed with the decision. At least it would have been clean and decisive. By leaving him in limbo for so long as they desperately tried to fudge a way to avoid getting rid of him altogether, they exacerbated the damage. Whatever you think of him as a coach, Ashton has been treated appallingly and it is of huge credit to him that he has retained his dignity throughout. He is just about the only person to come out of this with any credit.
So the future has finally arrived, it is ruthless, grizzled, nasty, no-nonsense and a blessed relief. Johnson is a winner, first and foremost. And for the first time in 4 years, England have the right structure in place, albeit that some have had to be dragged there kicking and screaming. I’m excited about it. Are you?
by Stuart Peel