Sport Rugby

Saturday 17 February 2018

Growler deserved to be carpeted

A lack of top-level coaching experience and poor choices cost Martin Johnson his job, says Jim Glennon

I only met Martin Johnson once, and it's unlikely I'll forget the circumstances. The 1997 Leinster team, of which I was manager, had just made its first major breakthrough in the then fledgling European Rugby Cup. Donnybrook was buzzing and a star-studded Leicester Tigers coached by Bob Dwyer and containing Johnson, Dean Richards, Joel Stransky, and Austin Healey were licking their wounds and doing their best to recover their composure in the Old Wesley clubhouse at the post-match meal.

I found myself sharing a table with the Tigers' skipper and, for some reason, no one joined us. It was left to me to play host. Not a difficult task in the circumstances I thought, but I had reckoned without the infamous Johnson growl which greeted my opening shot at conversation. I won't admit to being intimidated, but I was very glad that we were seated, that there was a table between us, and that his only possible weapon, a fork, was plastic.

Fast-forward 15 years and we've all grown accustomed to the growl. Whether in Welford Road, Twickenham or elsewhere, it became the iconic image of one of the great rugby players of our time. As a player, he achieved everything -- Premierships, Heineken Cups, Grand Slams, Triple Crowns, captaining his country to a World Cup, and the only man to have captained two British and Irish Lions tours.

It was this CV which catapulted him into the hot seat as coach of England within a couple of years of his retirement from playing and, crucially as it turned out, without having had an opportunity to cut his teeth as a coach. His coaching career, if it could be described as such, has come to a shuddering halt in the aftermath of a World Cup performance which, if disappointing enough on the pitch, plumbed the depths of delinquency off it.

The buck stops with the boss and, while his resignation appears to have been his own decision, there's little doubt that he was merely clinging on to the remnants of whatever control and dignity remained by falling on his sword as he did.

The vultures of the RFU were circling over the remains of England's effort in New Zealand, notwithstanding the Six Nations win in the spring.

When a career starts at the top, there's only one way it can go. Whether Johnson has the appetite to pick up the pieces again remains to be seen, and appropriately well-disposed employers are not exactly ten-a-penny in the game at present.

Johnson's reputation in Ireland will be forever linked with the red carpet incident at Lansdowne Road in 2003 when he refused to observe protocol by forcing President McAleese to leave the red carpet in order to greet the players. His subsequent refusal to apologise simply confirmed the estimation of many that ruthlessness and domination were the most important, indeed the only, qualities in Johnson's world.

It was a relatively easy analysis to make as it fitted conveniently with the image to which we had become accustomed.

The state of utter disarray in which the RFU now finds itself is probably something of a happy coincidence in the opportunity presented now for a complete overhaul of what is, by all accounts, a seriously dysfunctional administration of the English national team's affairs. Rob Andrew, the union's director of rugby, has now presided over the appointment and premature termination of three coaches since Clive Woodward -- Brian Ashton and Andy Robinson were the others. All of his appointments appeared positive in themselves, but in each case there are questions to be answered about the make-up of the wider coaching team.

In Johnson's case, compounding the errors of the appointment was the nomination of Jon Callard, John Wells, Brian Smith and Mike Ford as assistants, none of whom, with the exception of the latter, had tasted coaching success at the top level. The extent of consideration and attention which had been put into the chemistry and inter-personal dynamic within that group was, and still is, open to question. Most, for example, would readily prefer Declan Kidney's corresponding group of Alan Gaffney, Gert Small, Greg Feek and Les Kiss.

At the outset of his term, it was a simple task to predict the type of game that Johnson's England would attempt to play. The bludgeon would always be preferred to the rapier. Tindall, Tuilagi, and Banahan were the weapons of choice in midfield; players who only knew one way to play.

There was a marked absence of any kind of tactical nous, and his selection of old team-mate Jonny Wilkinson at outhalf had more than a hint of desperation to it. The 90% placekicker came with the price tag of the abandonment of any hope of challenging an opposing defence, particularly given the bulldozers already on-site in midfield.

Some of the younger cohort too seemed intent on aping one of the coach's distinctive traits as a player -- constantly testing the referee's indulgence. Ashton, Hartley and particularly Lawes come to mind immediately in this regard, and it was no surprise to hear that the practice of challenging authority had spread to their general off-field behaviour culminating in a World Cup campaign in which they seemed intent on self-destruction.

Not surprisingly, the infamous growl reappeared at the press conference when he ultimately perished on the biggest rock of all for a coach and was excessively loyal to his players, failing abjectly to distance himself from them when trying to explain away their utterly unacceptable behaviour.

"Rugby player drinks beer shocker" was his snide response to media queries. It may very well have been in your day, Martin, but not publicly, not with total disrespect for all around you, and never when representing your country on the biggest international stage of all.

We'll miss you, Martin, on this side of the Irish Sea -- wins against England probably won't be so easy to come by anymore.

Sunday Indo Sport

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