Johnson and co need to loosen up
February 9, 2010
Johnson almost smiles during his side's recent victory over Wales at Twickenham © Getty Images
Something Gareth Edwards wrote in a newspaper column after last weekend's England win over Wales was particularly noteworthy, and it wasn't his observation that it was one of the worst matches in the fixture's long history.
The great man had noticed the worry etched on Martin Johnson's face during the match and it made me think back and compare the current manager's demeanour with his predecessor (twice removed), Sir Clive Woodward. Whatever you thought of Woodward - loving, loathing or somewhere in between - you could never accuse him of looking uncomfortable in his role, at least not in the latter years of his stint. He might have looked a bit silly sometimes, jumping up and down in his baseball cap in anger or ecstasy, but it always looked as if he felt he was in the right place doing the right thing. Johnson does not yet look easy in his job, even though he is more than a year and a half into it.
'Winning' was the title of Woodward's much-quoted book of rugby and business philosophy and winning is probably the shortest route to soothing Johnson's fevered beetle brow. There was a detectable softening of his features during the switchback encounter with the Welsh when Danny Care scored early in the second half. Johnson half-smiled at Brian Smith to his left; there was almost a "gimme five!" between the two men - one had appointed the other when Smith became attack coach, don't forget. But there's not much space in that gantry they sit in above the players' tunnel, and anyway two princes of the realm were a few rows behind in the royal box. Mustn't go too crazy, old chap.
Still, it was a quite sweet and poignant moment, so long as you don't exist in that camp of foam-at-the-mouth critics who have demanded Johnson's sacking since the day he was appointed, and who furthermore believe that England should beat out of sight any team who darken Twickenham's door. If you find, instead, that rugby is one of life's pleasures, as opposed to a matter of life and death, and you are also prepared to cut Johnson some slack, you would have empathised with the tiniest relaxation across his shoulders in the moment of Care's crossing.
I found it difficult always to empathise with Woodward, whose motivations for doing the England job seemed complex, and whose players rarely found it easy to say much about him that was warm or admiring. For all his ogre-ish reputation, Johnson comes across as a much less complicated character and for that reason easier to like. He's a big bloke, of course, and most big blokes in rugby deploy their size to their advantage - you can see what's going on around the bar, and it gives you something to talk about with the ladies. He also invites others to stand up to him in conversation and watches for their mental frailty. But when Johnson was playing and when he was a captain he belonged in the throng; the way he played was to give his all and make damned sure the rest of the team were doing the same.
Now, the point is whether Johnson the team player is any good as a manager. This was what Lawrence Dallaglio was getting at recently, I believe, when he referred to players not wishing to stand up and challenge Johnson. If the manager is not relaxed, the players are unlikely to be so. If they are not relaxed they will make mistakes of the basic variety we saw against Wales when, after all, there was only Toby Flood who was picked remotely out of position, and none of the team were new to Twickenham.
England need to loosen up as they continue their progress towards next year's World Cup (and no one will convince me that anything is higher than that tournament in the manager's thoughts). I'd like to hear the players continue talking about how Johnson has been getting them together socially off the pitch and see them belting out the national anthem - not because I'm a raging patriot but because a little Josh Lewsey-like primal screaming is good for the soul. When the return of Nick Easter, Riki Flutey, Mathew Tait and Delon Armitage was widely hailed as a good thing it was not only for their nous and ball skills, but also for their attitude, their elan, their ability to do something off-the-cuff.
England will not win anything significant by grinding forward play and bashing into rucks and trundling round the corner hoping to inject the absent pace by the grace of God and good fortune. The players have to find freedom of expression and it may be one of those odd twists in life that, in doing so, they take their manager along with them rather than it being the other way around.
Hugh Godwin is a rugby writer for the Independent on Sunday