MARTIN Johnson could never walk on water, but at times it looked like he could. As a Leicester Tiger and a leader of England, he was more than a player and captain, he was a coach, a referee, a psychologist, the heart of soul of club and country, the closest thing to a deity that ever walked in the door of Welford Road and Twickenham.
You could spend a week listening to stories of Johnson’s essential hardness as a player, physically and mentally, but there is a favourite that dates back to 2003 and a Grand Slam showdown with Ireland at Lansdowne Road. To say that England were under pressure to close the deal was like saying that Greece is suffering a bit of a cash flow problem at the moment. Having butchered Grand Slams in each of the previous four seasons, this was one that could not get away. Dad’s Army would not get another chance. This was it. This – and the World Cup that followed – was the endgame for Johnson and his ageing warriors.
In the pre-game run-through, Johnson had been told by IRFU jobsworths to lead his players up the steps and line-up to the left-hand side of the red carpet where the beloved Irish president, Mary McAleese, would soon greet them. Instead, Johnson led them to the right where Ireland were supposed to be.
An IRFU official – God love him – was detailed to tell Johnson that he was standing in Ireland’s place and would Johnno mind occupying the other half of the red carpet.
Snarling and defiant, Johnson told yer man where to go.
“Martin, Martin,” pleaded the official, “you’ll need to move.”
“Get f****d,” said Johnno.
“But Martin, there’s all that red carpet over there...”
“Tell your lot to move, then.”
“But they were here first, Martin.”
“I told you before, f**k off!”
Johnno then walked down the line of his players like an army general telling them to stand their ground. “Nobody f*****g moves,” he said. None of them did. England finally, and riotously, won their Grand Slam.
When Johnson took over from Brian Ashton as England coach there were those on the outside who doubted his credentials for the job, his lack of experience, his complete absence of coaching know-how at any level, not to mind at the very top of the sport. The questioners were dismissed by those who believed that Johnno could do anything he set his mind to, who refused to accept that the man – The Man – could possibly fail.
There was sound logic at work. When England won the World Cup in 2003, Clive Woodward got the plaudits and the knighthood, but those at the centre of things knew full well where the real credit lay for the triumph in Sydney. A while later, Jason Leonard was asked who he thought was chiefly responsible for the glory of Australia – Woodward or the players – and he responded that 90 per cent of it was down to the players and 10 per cent to the management – and he felt the 10 per cent might even have been a tad generous.
Of the 90 per cent, how much was down to Johnson? A huge amount. When things went wrong on the pitch, Johnson fixed them. When a gameplan needed a tweak or a total overhaul, Johnson thought on his feet and normally found a way to win. If he could do it as a player then surely he could do it as coach and manager? Johnson never failed before, so why would he fail now?
That was the rationale, but it was flawed. For a start, the one thing Johnson was missing was a version of his own self. England haven’t had a stand-out leader since the great team of 2003 broke up. In New Zealand, they had Mike Tindall as a vice-captain who accepted the responsibility of the position by getting sloshed with dwarves and then sticking his head down a blonde girl’s cleavage before lying to Johnson about the extent of his boozing.
The scale of England’s failure in New Zealand is the subject of an internal review at Twickenham. Yesterday, Johnson walked, either of his own volition or because he got the vibes from above that there was little support for him to carry on. That’s how it came across in his press conference. He ducked and dived when repeatedly asked a simple question: “Why are you resigning?” Maybe he was leaving because he hadn’t had enough encouragement to stay.
Rob Andrew, through his own evasiveness, gave the impression that he had lost faith in Johnson. Maybe he hadn’t, but you could easily draw that conclusion given the way he answered questions. And here, in all its wooliness, was England’s problem. The guy, Andrew, who, in part, was sitting in judgment of Johnson, is a guy whose own track record is so poor that he shouldn’t be sitting in judgment of anybody. The fact that Andrew was front of house at the Johnson press conference showed how abysmally short of leaders the RFU are.
There’s been much talk about Andrew and the World Cup review and the governance of the RFU and the politics of running the sport in England and these are all deeply relevant issues, but there is another factor in all of this. Johnson’s appointment was a punt in the dark, a gamble. It didn’t pay for a few reasons; the coaching wasn’t good enough and the players weren’t good enough.
To spend even a few days listening to the England players as they readied themselves for their quarter-final against France in Auckland last month was an education. The ones that spoke in the early part of that week were in denial. When it was put to them that their performance against Scotland was desperately poor they said that a win is a win. When it was mentioned that it might not have been a win at all had Scotland not been forced into chasing the game when only three points ahead late on – thereby handing England a platform to score their late try – it was rejected as “could have, would have, should have”. They needed to take more cognisance of what happened in that Scotland game, particularly the way they started it, but they never did. A few days later, they made the same kind of comatose beginning against France and never recovered.
Johnson wasn’t a good enough coach, but you have to say that these England players are not good enough either, despite the hoopla that surrounds them and the great expectations that are placed on their shoulders. They are overhyped, immature, ill-disciplined, arrogant, in places, and too many of them are well short of big-game mentality. In the last four years, England have played 25 Six Nations matches and have won only 15. The one chance they had to win a Grand Slam was last season and they got blown away in Dublin. Northampton, with key members of the England side in their ranks, had a seemingly unassailable lead in the Heineken Cup final last season and also blew it. In 2009, Leicester lost to Leinster in the Heineken Cup final. Northampton and Leicester are the only English sides to have made it as far as the semi-final of Europe’s premier club competition in the last three years.
They lack an on-field leader and belligerence of the type that used to pour out of Johnson like sweat. He could shape his world as a player, but rarely could he do it as a coach. There are many, many home truths that need to be told to these English players ahead of the Six Nations, but that job will now fall to somebody else. Good luck to him. He’ll need it, whoever he is.