Johnson to follow Tindall out the door?
November 13, 2011
Manager Martin Johnson and Mike Tindall put on a united front during England's ill-fated Rugby World Cup campaign © Getty Images
The Rugby Football Union's repeated attempts to draw a line under England's ill-fated Rugby World Cup campaign continue to miss the target like so many of fly-half Jonny Wilkinson's efforts from the kicking tee during that troubled campaign.
English rugby's governing body tried to reassert their authority this week by kicking veteran centre Mike Tindall out of the Elite Player Squad and fining him £25,000 for his conduct "around the events" that took place in Queenstown during the side's recent stay in the adrenalin-fuelled resort in New Zealand's South Island. But instead of restoring order, their heavy-handed treatment of a 75-Test cap veteran has invited yet further criticism and ridicule.
For anyone who has somehow managed to avoid details of this headline-grabbing incident, Tindall and many of his team-mates embarked on a booze-filled night in the wake of their opening World Cup victory over Argentina. The players also took in the infamous Mad Midget Weekender at a local bar while Tindall, recently married to the Queen's grand-daughter, Zara Phillips, saw his tournament take a turn for the worse following an encounter with a mystery blonde woman that was caught on CCTV cameras and was later at the centre of a tabloid splash.
Crucially, the night out had been sanctioned by team management and there was no criticism of the player amid the media frenzy that followed but more importantly there was no remorse from Tindall himself. The 2003 World Cup winner, who reportedly refused to sign an apology, later admitted to misleading management about his actions but England boss Martin Johnson stood by his man under immense pressure. That show of unity was destined to haunt both men with the RFU's actions this week a clear indication that they believe the decision not to fine or suspend Tindall and just caution him at the time was a major mistake.
Like much of England's campaign, the handling of the incident was far from satisfactory. Regardless of Tindall's status as a senior member of the squad - he stood in for injured captain Lewis Moody for much of 2011 - and his central role within Johnson's plans for the tournament, despite some indifferent form, he should have been made to pay for betraying the trust of his manager. "Rugby player drinks beer, shocker," was Johnson's curt rebuff to the media at the time in defence of his own decision to allow the players the chance to let off steam. But he would not have expected his players to abuse that option by throwing up in the street and drinking so much you could not recall where you had been - facts we are understood he has only now become aware of. If he had been given all the facts then Tindall may well have been stood down, temporarily or permanently, and we would not be having this debate now.
The decision to get tough a full two months after the night in question drew widespread scorn with former team-mates leaping to Tindall's defence while former England lock and now ITV pundit Martin Bayfield spoke for many when he lambasted the RFU via Twitter, writing, "Mike Tindall's punishment is laughable; too severe & far too late. Horse hasn't just bolted, it's died of old age."
The decision to hammer Tindall was labelled as 'vindictive' in some quarters and going by the facts currently in the public domain it would appear that such an assessment has some basis. But so emphatic was the woefully overdue ruling that you sense that perhaps the full story is yet to come to light. "Mike Tindall's actions reached a level of misconduct that was unacceptable in a senior England player and amounted to a very serious breach of the EPS Code of Conduct," declared the RFU's professional rugby director Rob Andrew in a statement that added such behaviour would "not be tolerated."
That often cited Code of Conduct lays out what is expected of players both on and off the field and those demands include setting a positive example to young players and supporters in how they play, look and behave. Tindall would appear to have blatantly contravened the Code but his decision to appeal the fine, with the backing of the Rugby Players' Association, hints that he feels hard done by and far from setting the seal on the sorry saga, the severity of the RFU's sanction (team-mates James Haskell and Chris Ashton were handed suspended fines of £5,000 for their role in another of the tournament's low points) has ensured that the incident will continue to blight English rugby for a few more weeks at least.
The furore surrounding the treatment of Tindall is surely set to be eclipsed in the near future by a decision on Johnson's future. Reportedly "distraught" after finding himself in the firing line during Andrew's recent management review, Johnson has apparently accepted responsibility for his side's failures on and off the field and as a result fears his position has become untenable. If the grilling at the hands of Andrew and the fears of England's valuable commercial partners had not set the alarm bells ringing, then the punishment handed down to Tindall and the perceived failure of team management will have left little doubt as to the likely findings of the review.
The fact the decision as to whether Johnson, who steered England to the Six Nations title earlier this year, should be offered a new contract will be made by Andrew before being put to the RFU management board for approval is another subject of intense debate due largely to the fact that his own future is set to come under the microscope in the coming weeks.
Andrew was also in charge of England's controversial tour to New Zealand in 2008 while the recently-appointed Johnson remained at home to be with his heavily pregnant wife. That troublesome trip was marred by allegations of sexual misconduct and Andrew was roundly criticised for his handling of the players and the subsequent controversy but he survives to this day. Andrew was noticeable by his absence until the closing stages of England's failed bid for world domination and given his first hand experience of such a PR disaster you may have expected him to step in sooner than he did - especially given the scolding the side received on his watch.
"It may have been prudent for the tour management to have repeatedly throughout the tour reminded the players that they would be in the media spotlight and must therefore be on their guard at all times," wrote Judge Jeff Blackett, the RFU disciplinary officer, in his review of that dark chapter in English rugby's history. But he went on to offer Andrew, and perhaps Johnson, a lifeline, adding, "it would be unfair for the management to be blamed for any perceived indiscipline or misconduct."
Whether that experience will ensure a certain level of sympathy for Johnson remains to be seen but not even that is guaranteed to secure the manager a new contract whose previous achievements in the game, like those of Tindall, are in danger of being overshadowed by recent events. By this stage Johnson is probably aware of how his tenure will be judged and the reports of his imminent departure by those who know him suggests he feels it will focus on the negatives. But like much of what is going on at the RFU, there remains a lack of clarity.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.