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Will Johnno gamble back-fire on RFU?

International England
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So farewell then, Brian Ashton. And welcome back the World Cup hero, Martin Johnson.

Depending on your point of view, it is either the most shameful day in the Rugby Football Union’s history, or the most significant day for English rugby since Johnson got his mitts on the Webb Ellis trophy five years ago.

There will be much sympathy throughout the rugby world for Ashton, a proud man and talented coach who must be bewildered and exasperated at the events of the past month.

While speculation has raged over his future since the Six Nations ended, the 61-year old Lancastrian has maintained a dignified silence at his home in Bath.

A quick trawl through the 606 messageboards -“disgusting”, “shameful”, “a disgrace” and “beggars belief" sum up the prevailing mood – are testament to how you view his treatment by his employers.

Last week RFU chief executive Francis Baron, who labelled Ashton a “wily old bird”, said “Brian has to give us 12 months’ notice if he wants to leave, and we can give 12 months’ notice to him”.

Eight days later, with the less-than-tempting offer of returning to his old job at the National Academy on the table, Ashton has been unceremoniously removed from the senior set-up.

Former England hooker Brian Moore, a qualified solicitor, has suggested the shenanigans might border on illegal, and Ashton will no doubt be consulting his lawyers before deciding on his next move.

Certainly the whole episode gives lie to the theory that results are the only thing that matters at the elite end of sport.

Ashton’s record (won 12, lost 10) may appear modest, but it was better than either of his most recent predecessors, Sir Clive Woodward and Andy Robinson, at the same stage of their tenures.

Lest we forget, he took England, written off before the start of the 2007 World Cup, to within nine points of repeating their 2003 triumph, and second place in this year’s Six Nations, their best finish for five years.

The assertion of RFU chairman Martyn Thomas last week that “there are no prizes for coming second“ and that England’s goal “has always to be the number one in the world” might make good sound-bites.

But were they a realistic ambition for a head coach who took over only eight months before a World Cup, who inherited a team of coaches not of his own choosing, a playing squad undergoing a major overhaul and who was operating with a short-term contract where results were paramount?

If winning a tournament is the only criteria for success for the England team, what happens if they do not win the Six Nations next year? Will Johnson get the boot too?

One suspects not. His iconic status and legendary on-field exploits ensure he will be given more leeway by the media and public than might have been granted to, say, former South Africa coach Jake White.

One also suspects that Johnson will bring his formidable personality to bear on the whole England set-up, and sooner rather than later, bring in people he believes will achieve the desired results.

Ashton’s position was immediately undermined on his return from the World Cup by the damaging comments made by Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt in their autobiographies.

Regardless of the publicity-seeking headlines and endless interviews that accompanied both books, such devastating words from two respected senior internationals did not suggest a happy camp.

It added to the impression, forged in the troubled early weeks of the World Cup campaign, of a head coach not at ease with every aspect of his job, Dallaglio and Catt both citing deficiencies in his man-management skills.

Ashton did not distinguish himself as a selector either, omitting the likes of James Haskell and Toby Flood from his World Cup squad in favour of more experienced but less dynamic options.

It appeared at odds with his reputation as an innovative attacking strategist, evidence of which appeared only fleetingly during his 16-month reign, notably in the win over France in the 2007 Six Nations.

But when England found themselves in do-or-die territory at the World Cup, they resorted to the pragmatic approach that delivered the 2003 version, any long-term development sacrificed on the altar of short-term gain.

So what are England left with now?

A team manager with no previous managerial or coaching experience, who declared himself unqualified for such a post as recently as last November.

And a temporary team manager in Rob Andrew, who Sir Clive Woodward claims his staff voted the Premiership’s worst director of rugby during Andrew's time at Newcastle, is in charge for the most demanding of all tours to New Zealand.

No-one doubts Johnson’s leadership qualities, but can he translate what he did on the field into his new role as a manager, motivator and facilitator?

Will he appoint a new head coach, or effectively do the job himself? And will he retain the coaches he is inheriting in the longer term?

He worked closely with John Wells, formerly Leicester’s forwards and head coach, as a player, but will the relationship be a source of comfort, or tension, with Johnson calling the shots?

Wednesday's events leave just as many questions as answers, with none of the RFU's senior executives or management team emerging with any credit.

Andrew can certainly expect some awkward questions when he faces the media on Friday.

Having recommended Ashton remain in his role after the World Cup, he was understood to support his retention after the Six Nations.

But influential figures on the RFU management board decided changes were required, and Andrew now sees himself cast as either the man who shafted Ashton, or delivered Johnson’s triumphant return, depending on your point of view.

Nothing is black or white in the Machiavellian world of RFU politics.

Good luck Martin.

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comment by arch79 (U3428859)

posted Apr 27, 2008

cant believe you didn't accept that post ha ha ha

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posted Apr 27, 2008

Johnno has played under enough great visionaries, coaches, tacticians and leaders (including Ashton & Woodward) in his time to know exactly what will work and what won't - he can learn the coaching / management side of the role 'on the job'. What is vitally important in the early stages of his tenure is selection. He should be picking players on current form and not on reputation or future promise. From selection of the current best people in the premiership ( and the players all know who are perfoming at their best at any given time), the players 'buy into' and develop the mentality, if i play my best week in week out, i'm in with a chance of a cap. Then, competition for places increases, performance improves, winning becomes a habit again, player, team, squad & even kit washers confidence increases exponentially, the elite team atmosphere is rebuilt and the all important aura of invincibility surrounding the england team flows out around the globe once again striking fear into any team we are due to meet. Johnno, as he's been there before, at the coal face, sleeves rolled up, is the guy to lead the england outfit back to how we were performing from 2001-2003. I would like to see Ashton coaching the backs as he has a huge amount to offer, perhaps mixing it up a bit with someone like greenwood / cat assisting. The games in NZ should be good.

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posted Apr 28, 2008

Martin Johnson is one of the all time greats of the game gaining respect from everyone and awe in the sights of any true England supporter. However, being a world class player doesn't make you a world class coach or manager. I hope he does it for Englands and his sake but I think he needs experience in the job with a premiership team for 2 or 3 years first.

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posted Apr 28, 2008

Martin Johnson is a rugby legend,one of the greatest players to have ever played the game.One who clearly has respect from the players,and most of all a winner at club and international level.We all wish MJ all the best of success and that England will again win the world cup,which to be fair to Brian Ashton we would have won last year if we hadn't been hit by some very key injuries.So as MJ builds his coaching staff as the players get used to new leadership we as fans of the greatest game on earth can look forward to a rosy future.The one problem though could still be Rob Andrew as elite director,his guidance and decisins so far has been very poor,the treatment of both Andy Robinson and even more of Brian Ashton has been terrible and he must learn to be upfront and much better at his man management skills.Hopefully with MJ there things will dramatically inprove in every area.

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posted Apr 28, 2008

Scrum_Bum - despite getting a bit bored half way through your rant I agree with most of what you say, but stats don't tell the full picture. If they did, MJ's 100% record captaining England vs NZ in NZ is better than Eales's according to your stats, which I'll have to take your word for as I can't be bothered to check

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posted May 1, 2008

youve just gotta love jonno he rules key thng though bring in fresh blood and get the lewsy on at 15 then hopefully take us all the way in the 2011 world cup final as well as all the six nations between them as well

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posted May 6, 2008

Scrum Bum...seeing as Jonno actually led 1/2 successful Lions tours (which u seem to have got wrong) when we won in SA, and is the only man to have captained the Lions on 2 different tours...get ur head out of the sand and respect the guy! Unless your Welsh then its probably imposibble to shpow respect to anyone outside your own petty borders..

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posted May 6, 2008

What a player he was... Schooled at the top level of rugby in NZ (sorry, had to take a dig, we haven't got much to dig at these days after the WC) Anyway, he is a brillant player and captain, wouldn't say he was the worlds best, got to give it to the Aussies there with John Eales.... But anyway (again) how is MJ going to make such a great coach? What record has he got, or is he just a figure that everyone can say is the saviour but really has no say in the players or the coaching??

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comment by GoGrey (U11898657)

posted May 8, 2008

Was the RFU shortsighted in making this decision? Perhaps an experienced manager from outside England would have been a better choice (i.e. Jake White).

Look at Wales and Australia going outside their borders to find their leaders (both Kiwis). Can't help but think the RFU are being too provincial in their thinking. If Mike Catt is appointed attack coach, I will be convinced of this.

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posted May 8, 2008

The attack coach has to be somone with experience, with all credit to Mr Catt I dont think he has enough experience as attack coach. Who to pick though, they say it is down to Mr Johnson, so who is out there that is available and any good?

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