Time for Martin Johnson to step down as England coach
During the early years as team manager, when England lost three matches on the bounce to Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, an image of Martin Johnson became synonomous with his reign. Sat in the stands, his face grimaced in anger at the lack of quality in his team’s performance.
It became a visual accompaniment to the frustration he had at taking on a disenchanted squad following Brian Ashton’s time.Time was always on his side, as sub-standard displays were met with explanations of an evolving team focused on the World Cup.
The same lines were delivered yesterday, four years later, after England were sent packing by the French. With his contract up in December England’s dismal World Cup performance must surely be followed by the end of Johnson’s reign.
Seemingly doomed from the moment they arrived in New Zealand, England have lurched from sluggish performances to unpleasant headlines, in a campaign where the off-field activities have been far more entertaining than their rugby on the field.
The ill-discipline in the bars of Queenstown and the hotels of Dunedin, coupled with Johnson’s soft-line stance with players who have let him down, has hardly helped.
But it is ultimately over the 80 minutes where his management has been undone. After narrowly avoiding defeat to Argentina and Scotland they emerged from a weak group playing a French side seemingly in total disarray.
It proved to be the English in chaos, not their Gallic neighbours. There was a litany of knock-ons and unforced errors as well as a lack of invention, aggression, discipline and, whisper it quietly, passion.
England over the last decade have largely been a no-frills unit, relying on forward power, territory and the kicking prowess of Jonny Wilkinson. It has largely served them well but do this group play the game in any way different to Johnson’s World Cup winners in 2003?
His insistence in selecting former team-mates Steve Thompson, Mike Tindall and Wilkinson is touching but none of those players have justified such faith.
The team continued to play basic rugby, but there is little point doing that when you cannot carry out the basics, as England so hopelessly attempted yesterday. But while the players must share the blame for a truly wretched performance Johnson’s is where the buck must stop.
Altering his tried and tested gameplan of structured rugby in a World Cup quarter-final is tantamount to suicide, as the switch to a more open running game not only allowed the French space but made England’s players look clueless on the offensive.
And when his first choice backline faltered, all he had to turn to on his bench to provide some craft was replacement scrum half Ben Youngs and the brutish Matt Banahan. Where were the options? Mainly in a forward pack who were consistently dominated by Harinordoquy, Bonnaire and Dusatoir around the breakdown, preventing any kind of structured build-up.
Johnson was a wonderful leader on the field, off it he appears to struggle. It’s time for someone new.