Should Martin Johnson call time on his England managerial career after another fruitless Six Nations campaign?
I’m writing this article on Sunday evening, 24 hours after England’s defeat in Paris, he is still in the job… So, I am going to write it anyway secure in the knowledge that, in all likelihood, Johnson will still be at the helm and steadfastly supported by the rest of the management team.
It is becoming a rather monotonous task to be an England rugby fan these days. Another lacklustre RBS Six Nations campaign… Yes, England only lost to Ireland and the Grand Slam winners France, but good performances have been few and far between since 2003, and this season was arguably worse than ever. Every year we say it will be different; every year the story seems the same. So much so, that I was visibly depressed after England’s excruciatingly poor 17-12 victory over Italy and told my mother hand on heart I would rather have watched paint dry – it would have made me less angry, yet probably offered the same excitement. And I’m English, so I look for a scapegoat… I am not naïve. Though in most areas we have the players, the current side is not half as good as the England team that lifted the World Cup in 2003 under Martin Johnson’s captaincy, but a change is needed. Johnno’s appointment was a gamble; the gamble hasn’t paid off.
For the non-rugby fans among you, let me provide a bit of historical context: Despite a complete lack of coaching experience, Martin Johnson was appointed England manager in July 2008. He was picked for a simple reason: To inspire. Yet, the biggest criticism I can make of the current England side is that they lack just the inspiration he was supposed to provide. The team have been short of leaders, tactically they look lost, and players that are turning in excelling at club level appear sub-par when they don the Red Rose of England. The only thing I can palpably attribute this to, is the management. As England captain, Johnson was universally respected, renowned for his unquestionable pride. My guess is that this pride has stayed with him in his transition from captain to team manager and developed into a fear of failure that has rubbed off on the players. This fear of failure is hindering England’s progression. He would rather the team play within their capabilities and scrap out a nail-biting defeat/victory, than the prospect of a 30-point hiding. However, what makes sport such a wonderful thing is the occasional flash of brilliance, ‘chancing it’ if you will, and it seems that the current side have had it drilled into them to not ‘try’ anything. In this Six Nations, this has translated into a repetitive kicking game that has seen Jonny Wilkinson turn in his worst Six Nations performances I can remember.
Leadership has been a problem too. Without any outstanding contenders for the captaincy, Johnson opted for Saracens lock Steve Borthwick, who on current form would struggle to get into NURFC 1st XV, let alone England. Speaking on the Sky Sports programme ‘Rugby Club’, pundit and commentator Stuart Barnes was posed the question, “Would the players run through walls for Borthwick?” to which Barnes replied, “I’m not sure he’d be able to do it himself first.” This lack of leadership has hurt England, and the buck stops with Johnson. Borthwick should not have been picked – choose your team; then choose your captain. Lewis Moody has matured into a fine player and would have been my choice. Ben Foden and Chris Ashton should have been selected from the start, yet it took a dire draw with Scotland, on top of three mediocre performances, for them to be finally given the nod. In Paris, they provided a spark that the backs had missed all campaign.
In sport, continuity is an important thing, yet not at the expense of moving forward. Johnson’s fear of failure has exposed a mentality that has prevented the progression of the national side, and with the World Cup 2011 in mind, it is now that we should give someone new a chance and punish Johnson for his pedestrian tenure. In my eyes, Johnson will always be an England rugby legend, but an international coach at present he most definitely is not. Just as we opted for the tactical genius of Capello with an eye to this summer’s football World Cup, so too we should look elsewhere to win the coveted prize again. Dare I say it, let’s pick a Kiwi or a South African.