Trouble at the top for RFU
Eight years ago, almost to the day, Martin Johnson was feted as the sole English captain to lift the World Cup trophy.
On Wednesday, he shuffled sadly out of Twickenham, weighed down by the burdens of management, apparently unclear about his motives for resigning.
Perhaps he was aware that if he did not jump, he would be pushed.
Certainly he knew his coaching staff would be changed, and that the Rugby Football Union hierarchy remained a jumbled confusion.
There was little support from the man sat by his side at Wednesday’s news conference, his former line manager Rob Andrew.
Martin Johnson resigns as England manager following a miserable World Cup which ended in quarter-final defeat by France and also featured a series of off-field controversies. PHOTO: PA
When asked if he would have backed Johnson had he wanted to stay, Andrew refused to answer, saying it was “a hypothetical situation”.
Johnson’s three-and-a-half years at the helm were the original mixed bag, as a win ratio of 55% suggests.
Originally appointed in April 2008, Johnson missed the summer tour of New Zealand because of the birth of his second child and selected the team from afar.
England were thumped twice and the tour was notable mainly for the serious (and entirely baseless) allegations of rape against four players.
When he did take over properly, his side were on the end of three hammerings from the southern hemisphere nations at Twickenham.
They conceded a combined 102 points, scoring only 26 in reply. It was an inglorious start.
And there were disciplinary problems on the field for a long time under Johnson.
In the early days, his teams repeatedly gave away costly “soft” penalties, and while they showed spirit and resilience, they rarely offered much in the way of attacking rugby.
A couple of average Six Nations campaigns came and went and then, in the summer of 2010, there seemed to be a watershed moment for Johnson and his coaches.
England finally claimed a southern hemisphere scalp away from home, beating Australia 21-20 in Sydney, with tries from the young newcomers Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton.
The team repeated the dose against the Wallabies a few months later at Twickenham in one of the most fabulous displays the old place had ever seen.
The stands were rocked to their foundations as Ashton scored one of England’s greatest-ever tries, finishing a move that had begun on his own try line.
That proved Johnson’s best day as team manager. England went on to win the Six Nations, but the manner of their defeat by Ireland on the final day hinted at deep-rooted problems still to be fixed.
Their performances at the World Cup suggested that far from improving, the team had actually gone into reverse.
One of Johnson’s biggest failings was his overriding sense of loyalty.
This is normally an admirable quality, but it ended up clouding Johnson’s judgement.
For two years, Steve Borthwick was his England captain, even though his form and leadership qualities were questionable.
His loyalty to the “old guard” of 2003 also created problems. The most obvious example was his selection of Jonny Wilkinson as the starting fly-half for the World Cup, when Toby Flood had been the number 10 for most of the preceding year.
With Flood directing traffic and standing close to the gain line, England at least offered some kind of threat in their back division. Wilkinson’s more conservative approach and fading form meant the attacking impetus was lost.
His very unusual failure to kick the goals compounded the problem. Yet Johnson was unmoved.
In the back division, power was preferred to subtlety at every turn.
Johnson picked the one-dimensional Ayoola Erinle at inside centre in November 2009.
Shontayne Hape seemed some way short of international quality, but Johnson persisted with him throughout the last year of his tenure until Manu Tuilagi burst on to the scene at the World Cup.
And despite the success of the likes of Richie McCaw, Sam Warburton and David Pocock, England chose to embark on their World Cup campaign without a traditional “fetching” open-side flanker.
In the credit column, Johnson did blood the likes of Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes, Youngs, Ashton and Ben Foden, yet many would argue they were all given their chance one season too late – and even then because of injuries to Johnson’s preferred choices.
Critically, Johnson failed to ensure that the culture and environment within the England camp was programmed for success.
Instead, ill-discipline crept in. The well-chronicled incidents involving Mike Tindall, Ashton, James Haskell and Tuilagi contributed to the manager’s downfall.
It was his job to provide the boundaries for the players and they let him down and there seemed to be little by way of a deterrent.
Andrew’s position is now also being called into question. The head of the RFU’s elite rugby department has now overseen the departures of Andy Robinson, Brian Ashton and Johnson.
He has failed to accept any accountability for the World Cup escapades and at Johnson’s final news conference at Twickenham, many onlookers found Andrew’s manner patronising and flippant, when explanations and clarity were surely the order of the day.
Andrew’s biggest success has been in negotiating the eight-year agreement reached between the clubs and the RFU, guaranteeing access to players for periods of international rugby.
With two separate reviews scrutinising his role, it may not be enough for him to keep his job though.