The Roar
The Roar


England's dark age at an end with Johnson gone

Roar Guru
16th November, 2011
1107 Reads

Anyone with a passing interest in the fate of English rugby, or even rugby as an international game, should breathe a sigh of relief at the resignation of Martin Johnson: a sigh also laden with melancholy at the three and a half years’ worth of blazing wreckage he leaves behind.

Johnson is by a vast distance the most inept manager in the history of international rugby, and it would be difficult to conceive of such a diabolical performance in the wildest nightmares of an England rugby fan.

Johnson represents a broader phenomenon, the last gasp of the dinosaur age of rugby, the amateur era, when notions such as accountability and experience were given second place to vague concepts of ‘presence’ or ‘authority’. The RFU, the hopeless old boys club that appointed Johnson, exemplifies these problems.

It is simply a collection of ex-players, chosen with no regard for their ability to run a business. Instead every vested interest is favoured and the health and success of the game affected from the top by the incompetence and cronyism of figures such as Martyn Thomas, who unsuprisingly was behind the appointment of Johnson.

This appointment, a clear case of constructive dismissal, involved the systematic and humiliating undermining of the previous coach Brian Ashton, and displayed the ethical vacuity at the heart of the bully boy amateur culture running English rugby.

Johnson, fully complicit in this disgraceful victimisation of a decent and committed servant of English rugby, was chosen without any qualifications, embodying an amateur conception of how coaching and rugby worked.

It did not matter, the argument went, that Johnson had no experience whatsoever of coaching or management, because rugby is not fundamentally concerned with such things: all that is necessary to make a team successful is a great figurehead who can lead the troops into battle, a kind of sergeant major/ Lord Flasheart who can rally and inspire his charges.

This is the same thinking that leads to the organisation assuming ‘clubability’ as the only requirement of members on the board of a business. Competence, relevant experience and professionalism are not features of importance.


The absurdity of this point of view is shown by the simultaneous implosion of the RFU and downfall of the national team it created. The RFU’s calamities are too tedious and well-known to rehearse here. Suffice to say any failure of either the team or governing body is incredibly given the monumental financial and playing resources of English rugby, which loom above other nations.

Johnson’s reign itself is such an extraordinary tale of incompetence and arrogance that it must seem unbelievable to southern hemisphere fans. Southern hemisphere rugby is professionally run, and fairly accountable, so professional, high-quality coaches are always appointed.

Whatever criticisms could be levelled at any southern hemisphere or Super Rugby coach, they are all models of sublime perfection in comparison to Johnson.

There is an assumption that, for example, the team put on the field are more or less the best or at least the better available. One or two players may be out of position or disregarded, they may be ineffectively used or kept on past their best, but things are mostly correct.

Johnson’s selections were bizarre and wrong-headed. Andy Goode, Ayoola Erinle and Matt Banahan would never make a Super Rugby team but caught Johnson’s eye above reams of superior candidates.

It is as if a far worse Tom Carter had started every match of the last few years for the Wallabies, or Daniel Halangahu chosen above Dan Carter, although on his worst day Halangahu was better than Andy Goode. Erinle cannot even make one of the 12 Premiership clubs these days. Size was often important to Johnson, which explains the disastrous Banahan. He is enormous. That he is talentless matters less.

Then there was the old-boy selection. It has been six years since Johnny Wilkinson, Mike Tindall or Steve Thompson were good enough, but as they played with Johnson in 2003, that is qualification enough.


England has had plenty of talented players, all spurned. Danny Cipriani and Shane Geraghty are two world-class fly-halves, the former one of the best talents ever produced by England. James Simpson-Daniel is the best union-produced wing of the last decade (Robinson and Ashton came from league).

Matthew Tait is a gifted runner perhaps familiar to southern hemisphere fans from the 2007 final. Luke Narraway is a fast and highly skilled footballing number 8.

However, Johnson disliked all of these players. In Johnson’s mind, any player demonstrating extravagant attacking ability was somehow prissy and fanciful, not gritty enough to be effective.

Not that attacking was always disallowed. So incoherent was the tactical approach that a purely negative game and purely offensive one were often adopted in alternation across a sequence of matches, or even within the same match. A confusion of different playing types were expected to play one type of game for which they were suited, then another for which they were not.

Johnson was given a good team of coaches whose abilities he managed to squander. Whenever a good player was selected, it would be described in the press as ‘a Brian Smith call’. Johnson’s arrogance in making himself available for the position above experienced coaches is astounding: remember, Johnson had never managed a rugby team before taking on the national side.

With no experience, Johnson was unable to coax consistency from his team or control them on tour. He had several problems with players personally and dropped those concerned accordingly, though it is the final World Cup experience which sums up his mismanagement.

Following the old English amateur ethos that the biggest bully wins and that ethics can go hang, Johnson not only encouraged thuggery on the field and delighted in selecting players with a reputation as brutes (Dylan Hartley endeared himself on account of his eye-gouging ban), but enjoyed the idea of mob behaviour off it.


Disobeying the playing laws was also an aim, seen in the neverending string of penalties and yellow cards his team acquired, while the kind of illegal hits Courtney Laws employed in the RWC were his ultimate idea of combativeness.

Johnson was lucky too. Both France and Australia have developed an overwhelming fear of England having been knocked out of the World Cup repeatedly at its hands, and psychologically imploded over the last four years whenever they faced the old enemy. The moment Johnson’s team came up against half-decent opposition of course, they were pummelled. In fact the catastophic World Cup campaign on the pitch was the best his team could ever play.

Machiavelli defined princes in three catgories: those that have excellent opinions themselves, those that have bad opinions themselves but know which advice from others to listen to, and those with bad opinions and who do not know which advice to follow.

Whoever follows will doubtless appear superhuman in comparison, though three and a half years of pointlessly wasted rugby can never be recovered. Nor can that chapter in the careers of once bright young players such as Cipriani, Geraghty, Simpson-Daniel. Beyond even disastrous management of the team, it is finally the ruin of their brilliant prospects that marks Johnson’s greatest failing.

In fact the RFU and Johnson resemble Italy and Greece’s travails at the moment in the eurozone: a system based on nepotism, disobeyance of laws and wholesale enslavement to vested interests can never work. Perhaps like those two countries it is time for the RFU and English rugby to change. For now though, at least the Papandreou of the national team has left the stage.