We Need To Talk About Johnno

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

25 thoughts on “We Need To Talk About Johnno

  1. First wins in Sydney, Dublin and Cardiff since 2003, a first 6N championship title since 03 and regularly top try scorers in the Six Nations (2009 and 2011), allied with the best defence in the northern hemisphere and the capping of many new, young players. Johnson’s made plenty of mistakes, but to belittle what he has done over the last few years is ridiculous, knee-jerk and short-sighted. Starting from scratch, YET AGAIN, won’t solve the glaring issue that maybe, just maybe our players aren’t quite good enough yet. For once, let’s stop over-hyping players like Lawes, Youngs and Ashton as world-beaters.

    And all this because we lost one world cup match to the finalists and near winners, whilst Wales lose three games and are called heroes.

    1. Love your Wales/England comparison. With regard to England though, we need to see changes. Not knee jerk instant dismissal but something structured and controlled. The chances are that Johnno will be the scapegoat but at the same time he hasn’t coached/managed/been in charge of a high profile team prior to the England Job. It does raise questions. It doesn’t however provide instant answers. Starting from scratch is not an option. Looking at the successes and building on what worked, looking at the failures and changing what didn’t work is a good platform from which to move forward. It doesn’t seem apparent that this has been the case.

      1. It’s not just about his cord in the past, it’s about whether you really think he can take England any further. Duncan Fletcher did great things with the cricket team but hit ASAP and had to go. That’s the sort of decision which needs to be made. I can’t see how this coaching team, after overseeing mediocrity for so long, can take the team forward.

        When you say starting from scratch yet again, the problem is that we have not been startng from scratch. We have fudged and fudged and fudged instead of wiping the slate clean, bringing in somebody new and giving him full rein. The squad needs new voices and a culture change. Ask yourself what everybody’ reaction would have been if this had been Andy Robinson in charge. Or Brian Ashton. Johnson cannot be afforded special treatment just because of who he is. England came not a world cup looking inhibited, with no discernible game plan and managed to make a game which is fun and simple look incredibly joyless and complicated.

        1. Wow, I can’t type. Cord =record; ASAP= a wall (wtf)

          I think you can read between the lines for the others.

  2. Much wisdom in what you say Nick but I can’t agree with everything. Firstly, off pitch activity – let’s not be led by gutter press sitting in the self righteous position and attempting to bring down great people whether deserved or otherwise. Let’s keep things in perspective. It is well reported and quoted that almost everyone went out for a while during the World Cup and it is essential. It’s a part of Rugby. Professionalism aside, it should always remain a part of rugby.

    Examples should be set by Elite International Players but before we judge, we should look at the facts and not the spin that the likes of Sky News and the Red Tops want us to believe and judge upon.

    I have no idea if we’ll ever know all the facts but I know we won’t find them reported by the aforementioned.

    Did England lose because Mike bumped in to a friend or because some of the team went to a dwarf throwing bar?
    Would anyone care about Mike’s bumping in to a friend if England had been at Eden Park on Sunday?
    Probably not!
    We lost because we didn’t play well. On the World Cup stage a win is a win, simple as that but it is imperative to WIN. We didn’t do that for many reasons. Selection, game plan, handling errors, poor discipline, lack of cohesion, lack of speed, lack of quick ball and probably a few more things that I haven’t mentioned.

    This is where we need to start looking. Rob Andrew? Martin Johnson? the rest of the crew involved in selection, coaching and tactics. Clearly, something is very very wrong right now. To say that Johnson is inexperienced is the mother of understatement. He has experienced the glory days of the best England set up ever but that doesn’t qualify him to be in his current role. We need big changes at the RFU but I’m sceptical about how successful that might be.
    We also need to play guys hungry to win, there are roughly 6 billion people in this world and I don’t think there was one person that wanted to win the World Cup more than Richie McCaw. Rarely did it look like England REALLY wanted to win.
    Oh so much more to say and so much hope that someone somewhere will start to get it right again.
    Come on RFU, get your act together and support the team.

  3. If he stays, he needs to change the coaching set up. Bring in new staff, who have been on the front line of club rugby, day in day out for the past few years. Things have changed in the laws, and the way the game is played. But with old coaches who are effectively only coaching part time, these changes have left our coaches behind. maybe they need to be put back at club level for a while to catch up. Picking players on form happens at club level every week, so why does this not translate to top level? The coaches (MJ included) are not spending enough time watching these players playing club rugby, if they were the likes of Hape, Banahan, Tindall, Cueto, Easter would have been left struggling. If he goes, then whoever takes the job has to put his foot down, and bring in his own coaching staff, and not get shackled with the ruins that are still (just about) standing.

    1. Agree with your comments on coaching staff.

      I think that I would still have taken Cueto and Easter, but have been saying all along form needs to take precedence over reputation, so can’t fault the principle of what you are saying.

  4. Great comments from Rob, above – totally agree.

    One thing I’d like everyon’s opinion on is the Hape issue. Namely, why spend 2 years telling people that have been playing, watching and even writing about rugby their whole lives that they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about when it comes to Hape – insisting that he does things that we can’t see and that he plays a key role in everything the side does – and then drop him when it comes to the RWC itself?!? I’m not saying “told you so, Johnno!”, I’m just questioning why he changed his mind on something he’s been so consistent about at such a crucial point in time?

    Smacks of the Borthwick thing to me – and what I objected to most of all during that disastrous Borthwick era was not Borthwick’s selection/captaincy itself (which, I grant you, was galling) but that he and Johnno in particular were so bare-facedly DISHONEST about the performances England were putting in at that time, trying desperately in vain to pull the wool over our eyes, when all we really needed to hear was “yeah, we’ll put our hands up, it’s not good enough, and we need to improve” (and then for Johnno to act decisively, as he belatedly did).

    Overall, the above issues are, along with Johnno’s reluctance to speak to the media (which has to be part of his freakin’ job these days), indicative of a real contempt for the generally knowledgeable English rugby-watching public and a fairly objective, fair rugby press. I don’t like it one bit.

    In terms of the way forward… I’ve been blustering at home about firing him straight away, but let’s give Johnno the chance to introduce some new blood and have a crack at the Autumn internationals and 6 Nations. If we’re still an inconsistent shower by the time the 6 Nations ends (I wouldn’t expect them to win it, Wales, Ireland and France are all better sides), then let’s sack him.

  5. Am in two minds about Johnno. On the one hand he has done some good things over the past few years and do think that he has been let down by his coaching staff. He is also a pretty bright individual, who I reckon will learn from this RWC and develop things from here.

    On the other hand, his stubborn refusal to acknowledge players lack of form is mind bogglingly frustrating and whereas loyalty is good in a team, a manager has to be more ruthless and he hasn’t learned that lesson. To be fair, I don’t think that certain players repaid his loyalty either!

    Am therefore sitting on the fence and would give him 6 nations to prove that he can learn his lessons. This on the understanding that he has new rugby coaches and a team manager to oversee the players, but not the rugby.

  6. Was the World Cup squad to stay the same for the autumn internationals. Or are they going to drop some of the deadwood for some fresh blood? Just looked at the fixtures for these matches and they’re only a few weeks away. I would like to see some of the guys who were in the squad but didn’t make the final cut or any game time. Sharples, Botha, Simpson, Robshaw, Barritt should all be in line for some time on the pitch to see what they can bring.

    1. I agree – give them a chance and see if they can cut the mustard. Plenty of other names that could be in with a shout – Farrell is much heralded. I was against introducing him at centre but the more I ponder it, the more sense it seems to make. (Glad I’m not a selector!)

      1. I don’t think there are any autumn internationals this year due to the RWC

        And doesn’t Farrell play fly-half for Sarries rather than centre? Scored 28 points including a try in their last LV match

        1. Has played centre as well apparently. I got corrected on this point in a previous blog when I said he was only a F/H.

          Was thinking centre as no other proven contenders there at the moment.

          1. So far he’s played at 10, 12 & 13 this season, and scored tries in all positions, as well as kicking penalties from inside his own half.
            I think the future is Ford at 10, with Farrell at 12, Tuilagi at 13 with Sharples, Ashton and Foden back three.

  7. A key problem Johnno has is being a manager; he’s probably found it hard to replace his playing days (it’s a huge gap to fill in your life) and this role has helped fill that gap. However he is too much like the players which is probably why they all stick up for him. I suspect as well, he has found the decision-making hard; telling players that he knows so well in that context if they’re in or out of the squad. Being detached makes the process easier and you can be a lot more objective. Coupled with this are his assistant coaches – are they all singing off the same hymn sheet?

    To me there seems to be a lot of mixed messages and confusion. Why opt for JW when he stuck to TB at fly half during the 6 Nations? Plus sticking with JW when it was clearly not working! Lawes/Palmer partnership were immense in the autumn internationals only to be split by Lawes’s injury, so why stick with Deacon when you have a fully fit Lawes? Plus so many more.

    Lastly leadership on the pitch is crucial – out of all the captains chosen (far too many!!), Tindall is the only captain of a club side….when he’s not injured. However from the way that he communicates to the ref or to his players, he is not necessarily the best captain. The only other player to be a captain of a top Premiership club is Dylan Hartley – so why not give him the experience? It might have stopped him fooling around off the pitch.

    When listening to Dean Ryan on Rugby Club, he said that Johnno lacks a clear vision. Personally I don’t think that’s true, if I can see what he’s trying to achieve from the way the game is played, then anyone can. However it is down to the way that it is managed and executed both on and off the pitch. The vision needs to be communicated on the pitch and without a proper strong leader, this is impossible (especially with the bunch of headless chickens that I saw against France). However the players need to be sure about who is playing around them and the constant mixing and matching was unbelievable. For instance playing Flood at 12 may be a master-stroke but not in a RWC quarter final!

    There is a big part of me that says give him a little longer – maybe because like the players, I’m loyal to someone who took that team to glory in 2003. However my head is telling me that a stronger manager is required to make the tough decisions and to be consistent – I for one would love to see Shaun Edwards in a key role for England, he would certainly say it as it is…….but somehow unless the management structure were to change, he would ruffle the feathers of too many of those incompetent twits at the RFU. Therefore change at the RFU has to happen before a change in manager and I pray that Woodward has applied for the CEO role (and somehow gets rid of MT).

    1. Don’t like the idea of Hartley as skipper – too much of a loose cannon and hookers normally get changed after 60 mins – no good having your captain only play for 3/4 game and not there at the death.

      I do agree that there is a real lack of leadership in the current team from captains and senior players and I think that this is where much of the off field shenanigans spring from.

      I do like the idea of Edwards, as does probably everyone in England except the RFU! Although having said that, is something up with him at present – all sorts of little comments being made about Wales and Wasps. Has someone approached him for a better job? Anyone know anything?

      1. Apart from Tindall (who seemed to be absent due to injury more than he was present), Hartley was the only member of the England squad to captain one of the top four clubs from the Premiership. It does beg the question who should be captain/leader on the field? There isn’t a great deal of choice. Robshaw should get a look in. With the way Quins are performing, someone has got to take note of this and the way they won some monumental battles last year particularly against Stade Francais. Who else is there to choose from?

        There are those who think Mallinder should go for Johnno’s role (which I think is also a good option) and he has chosen Hartley to lead Northampton for a reason. He did lead the team to a semi-final in the Premiership and a European Cup final.

        Being a captain is a skill in itself and unless this is practiced week in, week out, how the hell can anyone expect to do this successfully on a world stage? Both Hartley and Robshaw should be contenders – but providing Leicester make Croft captain in the next few months over Murphy, he would also be an obvious contender.

        Anyone fancy a bet?

        1. I have to say I think Robshaw would be a great choice for Captain. Hartley, although being captain for Northampton and doing ok, still seems a little hot headed for me. Plus I think no8 is a much easier place to captain a team from. But some great captians have been hookers. Sean Fitzpatrick and John Smit spring to mind. Also if Robshaw was first choice no8, it would mean that Easter (slowest no8 at the world cup?) will be free to retire.

      2. Meant to say, I reckon Edwards is testing the water – he wants a top job with a top international team, probably England. However I wouldn’t put it past him to go for the AB’s job. He’s far better than Steve Hanson. He’s not committing himself because Johnno’s contract is up at the end of Dec. Plus he’s probably looking to see what happens with the CEO job before making more concrete decisions. The plot thickens…..

  8. Coming around to the idea of Edwards, though my first choice – bar Deano, which would be the biggest PR gaffe of all time (and, frankly, he did absolutely disgrace himself with Bloodgate) – would be Mallinder.

    No idea where all this Nick Mallett talk has come from – lovely bloke, and he did a great job with the Saffers of course, but he’s also the man that picked Mauro Bergamasco at 9 for a game against England…

  9. Can’t believe so many people on here whose opinions I value think that Johnno should not be replaced immediately. He’s not a coach, and he’s not a leader. As the captain he led by example, but he can’t do that as a coach. The team has no identity. When he was captain under Woodward, there was a very clear ethos. You knew what those blokes stood for collectively. Now I don’t think there is any sense of team. He is poor at assessing the talent available to him and tactically one-dimensional. How many times have we heard him say in post-game press conferences that we just didn’t do the basics right? Or complaining that we just gave too many penalties away? In other words, I have no idea why we lost. I was out-thought and the players were out-fought by opposition more motivated and focused than us.

    He absolutely 100% has to go. We will not move any further forward under his direction. He’ll do okay at Leicester for a while.

    1. I agree with you – it has been so frustrating being an England fan for the past few years that i’ve completely lost interest/connection with the team. I was honestly more upset for Wales’ loss than England’s. I agree a balance has to be struck between results/performance and it’s almost unfortunate that we won the 6 nations and beat Aus a couple of times. I can’t believe i’d say that but it’s true. If we’d have lost more in the past year playing this atrocious rugby we’d have been forced into a change pre-world cup.

      The England U-20’s are emulating the kind of rugby that the best teams in the world play and it got them into a world age group final – we have to start picking these players now and let them develop. Johnson wont do that. I don’t think he or his support staff would know how to coach them. Don’t other nations groom their coaches in the age-group sides and bring those players through with them when they get to the big stage?

      On another note – World Sevens Series starts soon…now that’s some exciting rugby (and Ollie Phillips is back in the fold)!

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