Should I stay or should I go
October 9, 2011
Johnson reflects on his side's World Cup exit a day after their disappointing defeat to France at Eden Park © Getty Images
England's painfully lacklustre exit from the Rugby World Cup may well signal the end of at least one or two international careers but the future of manager Martin Johnson is not so clear.
An emotionally drained Johnson would not be drawn on his future the morning after the night before with his side's high-profile capitulation weighing heavy on his furrowed brow. He was evidently still struggling to explain his side's failure to rise to the occasion while his Rugby Football Union paymaster Rob Andrew spelt out the details of what will be an agonising six-week post-mortem.
A detailed review will pass judgement on every aspect of England's fruitless campaign and Andrew's recommendation to whoever will be sitting on the RFU's management board come that time is likely to seal Johnson's fate one way or another. But Johnson strikes you as someone not accustomed to being told what to do and will make up his own mind long before someone offers to do so for him. But if he decided that he has some unfinished business, will he command the faith of those that matter?
His appointment just over three years ago drew widespread criticism from those concerned by his complete lack of coaching experience and the assumption within the RFU that a Rugby World Cup winning player will of course have the makings of a successful coach. Johnson was maybe the target of a lot of resentment stemming from the treatment of former coach Brian Ashton who was shown the door after reaching the 2007 World Cup final and claiming runner-up spot in the following year's Six Nations but either way he was under immense pressure to deliver from day one.
Success was a long time coming with a second place finish in the 2009 Six Nations evidence of development and while Johnson's charges were unable to improve on that standing the following year there were refreshing signs of a dynamic side taking shape in defeat to France in Paris. There was further cause for hope with a rare victory on Australian soil later that year and a breath-taking triumph over the Wallabies at Twickenham towards the end of the year inspiring yet more rapture.
England were evidently on the right track with the experience of the likes of fly-half Jonny Wilkinson and Lewis Moody and the emerging talents of winger Chris Ashton, fullback Ben Foden and scrum-half Ben Youngs propelling England's stock to a whole new level. World Cup year brought a long-awaited Six Nations title with their failure to clinch the Grand Slam in Dublin a significant blow but almost accepted with a chance to atone looming at the sport's showpiece event.
Far from the finished article as they headed to New Zealand, England emerged unbeaten from their pool but failed to refine their game. And that failure to produce their best when it mattered most would eventually cost them dear against a French side that had staggered from one crisis to the next on their way to the knock out stages.
The result of that rollercoaster ride is a record of 21 victories from 38 Tests (not including the two defeats against New Zealand at the start of his tenure but before he got to grips with the team) and a winning percentage of a just 56%. That return is blatantly not good enough for a side of England's resources but it may be sufficient to earn Johnson another crack at a World Cup.
Still reeling from the self-inflicted wounds that have made them a laughing stock in the last few months, the RFU are approaching arguably the most important time in their 140 year history with the world coming to England to play in four years time. Stability on and off the field is of paramount importance if the event is to be the commercial and PR success the unprecedented investment demands and the RFU are currently struggling to right the ship in the wake of John Steele's dramatic entrance and swift exit. If confusion continues to reign at HQ then the last thing they will want is a power void within the national side to add to their woes.
That fear may well convince certain members of the blazer brigade to stick with Johnson but it may be just their luck that the man himself doesn't want the job any longer. The alternative is a fresh face - or perhaps familiar one if Sir Clive Woodward's name was to surface once again - and with it a likely change of philosophy, approach and support staff. Such a scenario would demand patience from the RFU but with the clock now ticking down to RWC'15 they may not have the stomach for it.
Johnson's enthusiasm to continue as manager will no doubt be the decisive factor in the coming weeks. He described the role as "addictive" earlier this year but he must have been tempted to kick the habit as he fielded question after question about his players' off-field shenanigans. But you sense such sideshows are a price he is willing to pay if it means he can remain on Test match rugby's front line.
There were also no signs of immediate detachment as he picked through the pieces of their tournament-ending defeat with 'we' and 'us' punctuating his emotionally-charged explanations. This loss has clearly left a mark and that scar may well be enough to convince the warrior in Johnson to go into battle again. But if that is the case then someone else will surely have to pay the price for England's shortcomings. The prospect of losing one of his coaching team may trouble the fiercely loyal Johnson but even he will have to admit that something is missing from England's recipe for success and not just the end product.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.