Picture this: It’s 2011 and soon-to-be-Sir Martin Johnson is standing amongst a group of 22 sweaty men in white shirts, with his big mitts wrapped around the William Webb Ellis trophy, holding it aloft for the second time in 8 years.
An unrealistic dream? Absolutely not.
Add to that dream this contrasting picture: a white-haired man with droopy jowls sitting at home on his sofa witnessing the scene described above. His name appears in all the papers the next day as the antithesis to the heroic Johnson; a man who presided over England’s demise after a lucky 2007 World Cup, where the players led England to the final, before finally being dumped out with the RFU rubbish in 2008.
Now this is starting to form a likely projection.
Martin Johnson has spent his career making the correct decisions, intervening only when necessary at the critical times. Take the way he orchestrated the players’ strike in 2000 or how he broke the half-time routine in the 2003 world cup quarter-final against Wales to turn around a lacklustre first half. Both are examples of his leadership qualities, his business acumen, his tactical brilliance. And hence why, should he be appointed, he would be a truly great icon to lead England forward and out of the inconsistent underperformance that blights the national game at present.
However, Martin Johnson is also very shrewd and knows when the cards are stacked in his favour. As undoubted as his captaincy, leadership qualities, and skills on the rugby field are, he was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time in leading England to victory in 2003, with a team that consisted of at least 6 or 7 world class players at the pinnacle of their game. A team of world class players who played as exactly that: a team. A team who experienced a run of 2 or 3 years with minimal injuries and minimal changes to the squad. A team who thrived in the elite environment laid out by Sir Clive Woodward.
Contrast that with the tenures of formerly Andy Robinson, and latterly Brian Ashton. Robinson, dire though his run was as England head coach, was faced with a returning squad with no motivation, a changed management, the retirement of aforementioned icon MJ, the fall-out of retirees, and a downturn in the performance of a number of key players. Combine that with the insane number of injuries in the ensuing years and the poor guy didn’t have a chance.
Brian Ashton had much the same bitter pill to swallow, albeit with a number of ‘sweeteners’. The recognition of the RFU board that something had to change helped (though the ‘change’ ended up as a fudge), as did the return of some key players (Robinson / Wilkinson / etc) in time for the 2007 World Cup. His tenure can be regarded in one of two ways: with optimism – are we forgetting he took England to the RWC Final against all the odds? Or with pessimism: once we reached this plateau, Ashton should have used it as a springboard to introduce the new guard and dive headlong into future development.
And so in steps Johnson the saviour. Following 4 ½ years of exasperation from the rugby public, the masses are baying for the return of the biggest name in the game to lead them to glory and make these old farts see sense. And what attraction is there for Johnson? Well consider this.
– We are led to believe he will have carte blanche over selection, both of players and coaching staff.
– He will be following 2 coaches who have failed to make their mark, therefore making any progress stand out.
– He has an embarrassment of riches in terms of new, young players throwing their hand up to be counted. Cipriani, Haskell, Tait, Reece, Care, Geraghty, Stevens, Hartley, Croft, Strettle, Allen, Flood…. I could go on.
– The club-country clash is finally resolved, and the new agreement is coincidentally due to kick in in July, allowing the England coach far more control and time with the players each year.
Under such terms I think my granny would give it a good shot of taking England forward.
This article is not aimed to pass judgement on who should be England coach for the foreseeable future, but to point out that should Johnson take the helm, he has the odds stacked well and truly in his favour for a successful tenure. He possesses wonderful management skills alongside a rugby brain second to very few and an intelligence belying that of every other forward I’ve met.
We shall never know how much of an input Brian Ashton made to taking England to the RWC 2007 final, and perhaps we shall never get the chance to find out. We may well, though, be amongst the masses chanting the same name in adulation in 2011: Johnson, Johnson, Johnson…
By Justin Aylward