Martin Johnson's rocky reign as England manager

16th November 2011

As if boarding one of those Space Mountain roller-coasters which you just know with some trepidation will plunge you into darkness at some point, we knew Martin Johnson’s journey as England’s rugby manager would dip us wildly into the unknown.

It was almost an act of faith, really. There was a widespread, almost touching, conviction from many disciples that at the end of the ride, everything would turn out just dandy because of who was at the helm. People believed simply because the driver was Johnno. Yes, good old steely, invincible Johnno.
So when in that first November of his reign, his England succumbed to three successive defeats to the Tri-Nations giants by the combined total of 102 points to 26, perhaps England’s most miserable autumn series of all, no panic. Not with Captain Marvel in charge; a man to be trusted, a man to be followed. Never mind the lack of L plates; just feel the force of will.
How depressing, then, that ultimately that unique aura should fade to the point where, although the man could never lose a country’s adoration, Johnson should just end up neutered like so many of those players who could never translate their on-field efficacy into inspiring, behind-the-scenes management.
We knew he could be as disappointing as great footballers such as Bobby Charlton and Bryan Robson were as managers yet still we wanted to believe better of Johnson because he always offered the impression of being the ultimate winner.
But the ride was far too rocky, the driver having made too many handling errors and evidently not in total control of some of his more unruly passengers. It ended up crashing, directionless, on the New Zealand coast.
Johnson always understood, perhaps better than his supporters, that the grandeur of his playing record would offer him only an extended honeymoon, but no defence, against failure. “I go into the job with my eyes wide open, it’s not about ego,” he declared on his first day in the job in 2008. “I’m very aware of the perception people have that it will all be all right if I come back.” And, yes, there were odd moments when the driver did give us visions of a team that might play the game like no England side we had seen before.
Is it really just a year and four days ago when 70 seconds of sorcery conjured by Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton from their own try line, resulting in Twickenham’s wondrous try against dumbstruck Wallabies, offered a snapshot to suggest that we might have been witnessing a watershed for English rugby?
Johnson’s young England shimmered that day. The impression was that he had unlocked something exhilarating in these young guns, to express themselves, and not to be hamstrung by convention nor history. As was his wont, though, Johnson warned us not to get carried away. And he was right. Because that was as good as it ever got for his England.
When Johnson’s men got it right — beating Australia in Sydney through the Youngs-Ashton axis, the sparkling 2009 hammering of France at Twickenham and this year’s Six Nations triumph over Wales in the Millennium Stadium courtesy of Toby Flood’s orchestration — they could be very good.
But when they got it wrong? Horrid. Muddled. Labouring. Johnson’s defenders will point to that England won the Six Nations this year for the first time since 2003, yet that cannot conceal how it was a campaign that spiralled alarmingly, ending with them being played off the park in Dublin after the triumph in Cardiff.
When Johnson ditched Flood as his No1 for Jonny Wilkinson, a reign that had begun with Danny Cipriani being trusted with the keys to No10 had ended with him retreating in search of old chums as comfort blankets.
Nothing was more horrid than the last performance, which, sadly, will stand as the defining 80 minutes of Johnson’s reign. He was proud of how the team fought in the second half of that quarter-final against France, once he had told them in the Eden Park dressing room when 16 points down, to “go for it because you’ve got nothing to lose”.
They did go for it. Johnson did stir something in them. There is a belief in him from his players that has not dimmed. You could tell that from the reaction of England players at Bath’s training ground. Lewis Moody admitted to feeling “gutted”.
Yet forget the second half “comeback”. That first 40 minutes saw England’s performance level, in terms of execution, dip to simply unacceptable levels. Three years work for this shambles?
Of course, Johnson could see it. This champion of a man recognised that when you fail that ignominiously, it is time to depart even if there is “unfinished business”. At the end of this most uneven road, this wayward driver got the final bend right.