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FEATURE Johnson happy to stay in shadows but coaching absence 'a terrible waste'

Johnson happy to stay in shadows but coaching absence 'a terrible waste'
3 weeks ago

Leicester have a coaching vacancy after the exit of Dan McKellar. This is not an unusual situation at Welford Road. The next man to take charge of the Tigers will be the seventh in the last seven years.

At various points during that trigger-happy timespan, the name of Martin Johnson has come up as a possible candidate. This time it seems barely worth bothering.

England’s World Cup-winning captain has made it clear at regular intervals since his time as the national team’s manager ended messily after the 2011 tournament that he does not need the hassle of frontline coaching.

Maybe cycling and the occasional bit of junior coaching with his son’s team fills the gap sufficiently for him but for the English game, it is a terrible waste.

Martin Johnson
Johnson spent three-and-a-half years as England manager before resigning in the wake of the 2011 RWC (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

The wealth of knowledge he possesses, nuggets of which emerge every Six Nations on TV punditry duty, represents a largely untapped seam of gold.

Three years as England manager and then… nothing. Leicester have tried down the years to persuade him to return to the club he served with such distinction but to no avail.

The huge action shot of him on the wall in reception at Welford Road is the nearest the Tigers can get to luring him back.

Johnson, seemingly, is done with professional rugby.

During the Clive Woodward era, when the door to the England dressing room closed and the head coach left, it had always been Johnson who had directed the strategy.

His last public pronouncement on the subject in a chat with Lawrence Dallaglio late last year saw him reiterate that he had “no huge desire to put myself through that every Saturday.”

He was burned badly by his experience with England.

Johnson’s appointment in 2008, three years after the end of his own stellar playing career, came as a bolt from the blue given he had never coached at club level, but you could see the logic.

During the Clive Woodward era, when the door to the England dressing room closed and the head coach left, it had always been Johnson who had directed the strategy.

It wasn’t quite a case of ‘Right, forget all that, this is how we’re going to win this game’ but sometimes it wasn’t far off.

Martin Johnson
Johnson led England to many memorable victories, including in New Zealand in 2003 (Photo Nigel Marple/Getty Images)

Beneath that glowering beetle-brow Johnson possessed one of the sharpest rugby minds around so to tap into all that intellectual property made sense.

He wasn’t a hands-on coach as such but, talk to players who served under him, and they held him in high regard as an empathetic leader, expert at taking the temperature of the room and shaping the key messages of a Test week.

They also felt he had their backs.

Maybe, in hindsight, he was too close to them, too loyal. His long-lead approach to the squad at the 2011 World Cup allowed the tournament narrative to run away from England.

If his England coaching tenure was ultimately judged a failure by the fallout from the ‘Magic Midget Weekender’ and the Manu overboard escapades then that serves to gloss over more positive moments.

He was happy to allow the players down time to let off steam because he had been there himself in the pressure cooker of the international game and knew they needed it. But the stream of negative headlines which followed meant that much of Johnson’s bandwidth in New Zealand was taken up dealing with non-rugby matters.

When the team exited at the quarter-final stage to a mutinous France, the roof fell in. The leaked review criticised Johnson for failing to take sufficient action after the infamous night out in Queenstown.

Even then there were influential elements amongst the Twickenham hierarchy who wanted Johnson to stay on, but with his coaches cleared out and heartily sick of the nonsense, he felt it was the right time to go.

If his England coaching tenure was ultimately judged a failure by the fallout from the ‘Magic Midget Weekender’ and the Manu overboard escapades then that serves to gloss over more positive moments.

Martin Johnson
Johnson resigned as England boss in November 2011 after being criticised in a post-World Cup review (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

Earlier that year England won their first Six Nations title since the Woodward era. They also beat Australia – in Australia – for the first time since the 2003 final and memorably splattered the Wallabies at Twickenham in a game which featured the Chris Ashton wonder try.

In all he won 21 and drew one of his 38 Tests in charge – not up there with Woodward or Eddie Jones but a superior record to his two predecessors Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton.

The fact that he has never had another job in rugby since leaves him with the strangest of top-heavy coaching CVs.

There will be those who feel he is too far out of the loop now to return but rugby, for all it waxes and wanes with its trends and fads, remains rugby.

Johnson was never a hands-on coach, more a rugby wisdom tower with all his accumulated experiences, and that sort of encyclopaedic knowledge never goes out of print.

Martin Johnson
Johnson returned to Welford Road to play in a Legends match in 2013 but appears reluctant to return to a frontline role (Photo Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

It isn’t too late should he have a change of heart.

The trend is towards younger coaches in the Premiership with Phil Dowson a title winner at 42 but Johnson is 54, not 84.

The most successful domestic coach of recent times, Mark McCall, is two years older than Johnson and Warren Gatland and Eddie Jones are holding down international jobs in their 60s.

Maybe he just feels he has earned the quiet life and there is an argument for that. As a player and captain he was a Herculean figure, a brooding colossus who left everything out on the field for his club and his country.

With England in New Zealand this week, the memory goes back to the epic backs-against-the-wall win in Wellington when Johnson was captain 21 years ago.

Perhaps the game still owes Johnson. Perhaps after the last chapter with England there needs to be a post-script.

With Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back in the sin-bin, England’s six-man pack – with Johnson at its core – somehow stood their ground in a gripping scrum siege.

“What was going through your head when you packed down?” Johnson was asked afterwards.

“Nearly my spine,” he answered, deadpan.

It was typical of the man.

Maybe it is rude to ask for more, given his contribution.

So let’s flip it round. Perhaps the game still owes Johnson. Perhaps after the last chapter with England there needs to be a post-script.

It still feels as if there is a role somewhere for him. And that somewhere, the heart says, has to be Welford Road one day.

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