England’s exit from the World Cup brought their short-term success over the last few years into the cold light of day and all evidence suggests – nay, insists – that some big changes need to be made. Obviously the blazer-brigade is busy pulling each other’s hair and spitting venom at each other in the board room and they can continue to do that as I’ll be there soon having applied for the position of CEO myself (no joke, I figured if I have the ability to string a coherent sentence together without bitching – this article aside – it can only be an improvement at HQ). However, at no point should coach Martin Johnson be ignored in the farce that was England’s World Cup campaign.
Obviously I won’t be handed the job as I’d probably be considered far too “radical” with my “best players for the team” policy and “no getting pissed and making a fool of yourself during the biggest tournament of your life” initiative. However if, by some miracle, I was hired, the whole board would be out, alongside Rob Andrew, for the nonsensical idea of choosing someone with no relative experience to do the hardest job in English rugby. It’s the equivalent of Alan Sugar hiring one of the cameramen at the conclusion of the Apprentice; he’s been involved in the best bits of English rugby, but was only a small (albeit incredibly vital) part of the success.
Look at the results over the last few years of Johnson’s reign and there have been few high points. Beating Australia down under is always nice, as it was on home soil a few months later. A great couple of performances in the early stages of the Six Nations this year saw England eventually clinch the title, albeit after a poor win over Scotland, another “grind-out” win over France and a loss to Ireland. Other than that it’s all been a bit of a let-down really. Lots of those “it was an ugly win, but a win none the less” types of victory. But the RFU stuck with him.
Johnson is a stubborn man, not one to give up and not one to admit he has made a mistake. But he was consistently wrong and only changed his mind when it was too late. In 2010 people were screaming for the likes of Youngs, Foden, Lawes and Ashton to be in the starting line-up and he only did so reluctantly. The result was a bit more speed and dynamism in the back line and a noticeable improvement. Manu Tuilagi was called upon after he had a great season, but how many Tuilagi’s have been missed along the way? Chris Robshaw and Charlie Sharples are two that immediately spring to mind.
This stubbornness crosses into his selection policy. How many times did we see a lumbering Matt Banahan on the pitch solely because he could cross the gain line in Johnson’s eyes (which, ironically, he rarely did)? How long did he continue with the Hape experiment which proved about as useful as a tent made of tissue paper? Need I remind you of Steve Borthwick and the insistence that he remained England captain for so achingly and frustratingly long.
Oddly, selection and stubbornness leads nicely on to my another important point: the lack of a Plan B. Selection ahead of the World Cup pointed strongly towards 10-man rugby. This is all fine if it works, which it didn’t. It seemed like once that plan had run its course it would still continue, with the players seeming to be slaves to a failing game of rugby, all the instinct trained out of them. The only reason they got away with it for so long in New Zealand was because the opposition let us (thank you Scotland and Argentina).
The list of areas where Johnson failed goes on. Discipline, both on and off the field, was lax at best. Everyone knows what happened so let’s not dwell. But the fact it happened on Martin Johnson’s watch is a major issue that needed resolving with an immediacy you would expect from one of the toughest men to have graced the game. “Rugby player in beer drinking shocker” yes, but “England manager sweeping underlying issues under the carpet” is more truthful in hindsight.
Many will point to the supporting coaches and blame them, and rightly so as the tactics were, in part, their fault. Many will say that Clive Woodward’s team were knocked out of the 1999 World Cup before the triumph in 2003, but the team were moving forward then. The England of 2011 are still in the same place as the England of 2008. Mark Cueto can say England have had some “huge results” since Johnno came in, Tom Croft can blast the questioning of his coaches managerial record but, in fairness, how many players supported their coach in similar circumstances (except the French, Christ knows what they do). How many would be brave enough and speak up about it?
Whilst the evidence points towards Johnson having to go, I imagine he will probably stay. He will argue that he has a job to finish but he’ll be saved thanks to past glories. Oscar Wilde once said “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you place the blame,” and with events continuing to unfold in Twickenham, Martin Johnson has a lot of people he can point the finger at.
by Nick Winn