Johnson makes England exit with 'eyes open'
It was a long, hard three and a half years, and Martin Johnson thought just as long and hard before walking away from his job as England manager -- a job that ended in abject World Cup failure in the rugby badlands of New Zealand.
But in the end, the untenable became the inevitable. "There's a part of me that regrets leaving because there's a degree of unfinished business," he said yesterday, "but I came into this with my eyes open and I leave with my eyes open. It's an all-encompassing, all-consuming role and when I ask myself if I'm ready to commit to another four years, the answer is, 'no, I'm not'."
Johnson made it clear in his valedictory address at Twickenham that he had run the operation his way, with the people he wanted alongside him. "I had all the help I needed," he insisted, "and I was allowed to do the job on my own terms.
"I was insulated from whatever was going on with the Rugby Football Union, and what happened at the World Cup had nothing to do with issues over governance or structure."
Sitting alongside him, in need of some defending, was Rob Andrew, the man who runs the professional rugby wing of the RFU's sprawling operation. While much of the questioning of Johnson was sympathetic in the extreme, the questioning of the former England outside-half was quite otherwise.
Would he too be pondering his position? Andrew fought fire with fire. "There is a widespread misunder- standing of my role: my job is to run a huge department; Martin was appointed to run the England team," he responded. "No, I'm absolutely not considering resignation."
Many expected the body language between the two men to be strained, not least because Andrew had presided over the heavy disciplinary treatment dished out to centre Mike Tindall, whose off-field behaviour during the recent global gathering in All Black country had done so much to derail England's attempt to recapture the Webb Ellis Trophy.
Johnson, who had shown a good deal of support for Tindall at the time, must surely have been taken aback by his occasional captain's ejection from the elite squad and the decision to fine him £25,000 into the bargain.
Yet the outgoing manager showed no sign of anger or frustration with Andrew during the 40 minutes they sat cheek by jowl. Quite the opposite. Asked whether the Tindall furore had been a major factor in his decision to quit, he replied: "There's no one thing that tipped me over the edge. I've taken a lot of things into consideration.
"If we had beaten France in that quarter-final, would I have reached the same conclusion? I don't know. You can only make decisions on where you are, not where you might have been. I've made mine while there's a choice in front of me."
Andrew, as combative as he has ever been in public session, said it was now his job to find the next England coach, adding that he was keen to get on with it. "I can't do anything while I'm sitting here," he said, pointedly.
Who that coach might be, and when he might be appointed, is unclear, although some heavyweight candidates are in the frame -- most notably South African Nick Mallett, who has worked at international level with both the Springboks and Italy, and New Zealander Graham Henry, who guided the All Blacks to the world title less than a month ago.
Mallett has indicated an interest in running England in a hands-on role, although some reports have suggested he might not apply if Andrew were to be his immediate superior. Henry would also look favourably on a Twickenham role, although he would be more tempted by the position of elder statesman than front-line coach.
Whoever takes on the task, he will be under every bit as much pressure as Johnson encountered. "If you want a nice, steady life, don't do the job," he said. "It's tough, but that's the deal. If it was easy, anyone could do it."
Martin Johnson was as far from "anyone" as it gets in the world of rugby, but the job still proved too much for him. (© Independent News Service)