Sunday 24 September 2017

Absence of leadership at the root of England's failings

Martin Johnson and his squad could have done with a manager, says Jim Glennon

IT MAY appear as if I am taking a certain amount of pleasure from seeing our English friends squirm in their hour of real difficulty, but the truth is that there are lessons to be learned by us all from this sorry saga.

I wrote last Sunday of Martin Johnson having fallen on his sword before being forced to do so. Little did I know at that time the extent of the criticism which was in the pipeline, and which was leaked last week, sweeping away one victim already in Brian Smith, the assistant coach with responsibility for attack, and with the near certainty of further casualties.

Scrum coach Graham Rowntree alone of the coaching group emerges with his reputation intact, if not enhanced even, while Smith, Dave Alred (kicking), Mike Ford (defence) and John Wells (forwards) are depicted as significant contributors to the obviously dysfunctional project that was England's campaign.

In addition, Rob Andrew, the RFU's director of operations, will need all the teflon in Westminster combined with the deftness of foot he displayed in his career if he is to plot a route to survival through this particular mess.

Towering above the murkiness of the players' criticism, however, two specific points emerged: the leadership vacuum on the part of the players, and the overpowering and near-suffocating dominance by Johnson.

One of the more eye-catching revelations was that the team captain, Lewis Moody, didn't even lead the team talks -- he left that task to Johnson. That this was the case begs the question of whether, in his previous existence as English captain, Johnson would have deferred so meekly to coaches Brian Ashton or Andy Robinson, or even Sir Clive himself, and allowed them perform such a vital function of the captaincy of any team.

The controversy has been based almost exclusively on leaks from the players' submissions to their post-tournament review and it has to be accepted, as suggested by Johnson on Friday, that emotion was a factor in their compilation.

To question their validity or honesty for that reason is however to do his players another disservice -- many's the truth that wouldn't otherwise see the light of day is uttered in anger or disappointment. Ironic too is the sight of the man who foundered on the rock of excessive loyalty to his players now adopting the opposite position by seeking to undermine the professional opinions of those he had sought to protect.

Giving it a bit of a blast, as all teams do, is a time-honoured tool in the kit-bag of most managers or coaches. It's usually presumed to have a large element of alcohol at its core. There's good reason for this too -- alcohol, as we all know, lowers inhibitions, which in turn leads to a breaking down of barriers and a more liberated process of honest communication between colleagues, an essential element of any successful team.

Honest responses to an anonymous questionnaire can have the same effect, without the necessity for the drug, and as such the results of this particular process are worthy of respect rather than rebuke.

It will be fascinating to see just how the English structure unravels as, coincidentally, and very much below the radar, a couple of vacancies have recently arisen in the backroom group of the Irish team -- backs coach Alan Gaffney returns to his native Australia, and team manager Paul McNaughton steps down, both having fulfilled their respective terms. It appears Gaffney will not be replaced, but a successor is being sought for McNaughton, for a position which is of crucial importance in our national set-up and one which, interestingly in the context of their current tribulations, is not provided for in the current English structure, where there is a de facto merging of the position with that of head coach.

The manager's role, in its current Irish manifestation at least, is not so much that of a troubleshooter, more of a problem anticipator. He is a central figure within the team-room in that his job is to ensure that all the different wheels within the structure are functioning at their optimum, particularly where those wheels interact with others outside the team's immediate environment -- IRFU, media, sponsors etc. We have been very well served in that role not only by McNaughton, but also by his predecessor Brian O'Brien; indeed it was no coincidence that Eddie O'Sullivan's real difficulties in the Irish job only arose after he had dispensed with the services of the Shannon clubman and former Munster manager.

It's also worth noting just how well served both Munster and Leinster have also been by their team managers -- O'Brien, Jerry Holland and currently Shaun Payne for the former, and Ken Ging, McNaughton and now Guy Easterby for the latter. Interesting too is the fact that all of them are former players with their respective provinces and, in the case of the current incumbents, of very recent vintage, both moving immediately into the position on retirement from playing.

All of them brought with them their own deep reservoirs of rugby acumen and simple common sense, thereby successfully facilitating the essential channels of communication between all the relevant stakeholders, in such marked contrast to their counterparts at Twickenham.

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