by Preeti Virdee
16th November 2011
MARTIN OSBOURNE JOHNSON CBE is rightly hailed a rugby legend, the world's greatest lock [alongside fellow RWC winner John Eales], a triumphant British & Irish Lions captain, a Rugby World Cup winning captain, and England Rugby's most successful leader on the field. And whether you love them or hate them, let us not forget his unparalleled service to Leicester Tigers.
Under Johnno's leadership, he led his club to four premiership titles and two Heineken Cup championship wins. As England captain from 1999, the team won three Six Nations championships, a grand slam, two triple crowns, as well as bringing home the World Cup - the only Northern hemisphere to do so to date.
And following his graceful retirement from the international field at the peak of his playing career with 84 caps to his name, Johnno continued to captain the Tigers until 2005. Soon after, he announced he would not contemplate any coaching role until he had the relevant experience. And then Johnno finally took some time out, was an ambassador for Tetleys, turned his hand to punditry for not just rugby, but his beloved American Football. And he took those family holidays that were entirely impossible whilst serving club and country. With his Kiwi wife, Kay, and daughter Molly, Christmas with the outlaws down under was not an option until after 2005, 15 years after he returned to England's shores with his then girlfriend.
Bizarrely, it was New Zealand that could have benefited from England-born Johnson, as whilst playing for King Country in 1989-90, he represented his host nation in the New Zealand U21s on tour in Australia. But thankfully for England, he returned home to the Tigers after two seasons.
Johnson's tenure as player and captain was not without its moments. He was a feisty forward who never shied away from a scrap, though a gentle and quiet giant off the pitch. And in 2000, not long after being handed the captaincy following the News Of The World sting on Lawrence Dallaglio, Johnno led the strike against the RFU, in defiance of the pittance the England players were paid for putting their bodies on the line on the pitch. The RFU were raking in £millions from ticket revenue and sponsorship deals, swanning around in Aston Martins, whilst the players' only privilege was to run onto the park, and if they won, were paid £150 a match.
But in April 2008, under the direction of then RFU CEO, Francis Baron, and Director of Elite Rugby, Rob Andrew, incumbent England coach, Brian Ashton was unceremoniously ousted just 4 months after his contract had been renewed, and Martin Johnson replaced him, with no coaching experience whatsoever. And this is where the sad part of the tale begins.
Under Johnno's leadership as England Captain, the team won 47 of its 55 matches - an 85% winning percentage. Once the great man took on the role of coach, of 38 matches, his team pulled off only 21 wins, 16 losses and 1 draw against Scotland, a win rate of just 56%.
We have all known of the RFU turmoil at board level, and even as far back as 1995, then England captain, Will Carling -a chap who has never been afraid to speak his mind- referred to the RFU committee as "57 old farts" on Channel 4's Fair Game programme. Twenty-four hours later, Carling, who had already led the country to Five Nations Grand Slams in '91, '92 and '95, was sacked [though reinstated within days].
16 years later, and little appears to have changed according to the recent Blackett report submitted at the beginning of September; a review commissioned by the RFU under the chairmanship of HHJ Jeff Blackett to determine the circumstances of the departure of CEO John Steele - who was appointed by the Board in the first place, and on his arrival began to make the wholesale changes required. The report concluded that all non-executive Board Directors should resign [except Bill Beaumont], that Acting CEO, Martyn Thomas should resign all his non-executive roles save Chair of England Rugby 2015, and that media protocol had to be implemented to prevent the Board from leaking confidential matters to the inner circle of established broadsheet media. The report was then summarily all but dismissed, not published, and the review team threatened with legal action. Corporate Communications and Public Affairs Director, Peter Thomas -who had been put in the most difficult position by said Board which had more holes than a sieve- left the RFU in silence. Almost a month later, the 52-page report was finally made available to the RFU members when a suitable printer had been found.
To digress no longer...whilst all these shenanigans were occurring in the corporate echelons of England Rugby's governing body, Martin Johnson and his England Elite were preparing for the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand at camp in Surrey, winning 2 of their 3 warm up matches before shipping out to their pool stage base in Dunedin. Captain Lewis Moody - who had suffered numerous injury setbacks over the previous 12 months - was almost back to full match fitness, and it appeared to those of us who had all but moved into Penny Hill Park with the world cup squad, that they were mostly shielded from the goings on back at HQ, and there was a positive atmosphere. Matters were definitely on the up with England having already secured the RBS Six Nations Championship earlier in the year, losing only the final game to Ireland.
Hi ho hi ho...it's off to Kiwiland they go. And England proceeded to win all 4 of their pool matches against Argentina, Georgia, Romania and Scotland, with the first and the last being very messy, very close and almost by the skin of their teeth. But it was job done and Johnno's team were through to the quarter finals to face a French side who so far had not bothered to turn up. Unfortunately, in the meantime, the British press made mountains out non-existent molehills, accusing the players of all sorts of nonsense as they went out and celebrated the hard-fought win against the Pumas, with the express permission of the management who even paid for the libations at the first venue with the RFU corporate credit card. Yes vice captain and grand son-in-law to Her Majesty The Queen, Mike Tindall, met up with an old girl friend of his [and newer friend of his wife, Zara] and celebrated some more - in typical rugby fashion. Nothing untoward happened, but a nasty little creature took it upon himself to cause a furore over absolutely nothing and drag Tins' name through the mud via social media, aided and abetted by the British press.
Whilst still in Dunedin, James Haskell, Chris Ashton & Dylan Hartley partook in some juvenile rugby banter with a member of the hotel staff, had their knuckles rapped by the England management, apologised and it was over. Or so they thought...but 3 weeks later, the staff member in question, a Miss Annabel Newton took it upon herself to become offended all over again in the presenceof lawyers and then the press to grab her nano second of fame. And finally there was Queenstown where the boys let their hair down with extreme sports, exactly as the Ireland team did, but somehow the salacious media forgot to mention that other rugby teams were doing the same. So suddenly Nick Easter's bad back just had to be a result of the bungee jump, and it was entirely irrelevant that he trained the rest of the week with no problem whatsoever.
As much as the press exaggerated the behaviour of the England team - which was in fact not nearly as outrageous as previous world cups as is slowly being publicised in numerous international retirement biographies popping up including that of captain Lewis Moody - Johnno dealt with all the media accusations in press conferences that should have focused on the wins so far. But even he could not stem the unfair reporting, despite his amusing yet dry quip of "rugby players drink beer...shocker."
Unfortunately for England, they were the team that did not wholeheartedly turn up at the quarter finals, and Les Bleus did, with bells on. But Johnno's decision to leave such a wealth of experience on the bench until so late in the day was questioned by most. So England returned home with tails between their legs, but not before England's newest shining star of the tournament, Samoan-born Manu Tuilagi decided to take a swim to shore off the back of a ferry in Auckland. It was probably funny at the time, not particularly clever, but again, absolutely no harm was done.
Ever since England have returned to northern shores, the proverbial has hit the fan. There was speculation on Johnno's position even before he landed back home, and with Acting CEO, Martyn Thomas finally agreeing to step down from every aspect of rugby, the future of the RFU was in even more turmoil.
Despite Johnno sticking up for his players in New Zealand, since coming home, in the most ridiculous fashion, Mike Tindall has been fined £25,000 and dropped from the Elite squad, and Haskell and Ashton fined £5,000 each [suspended] for the Dunedin hotel incident which was allegedly dealt with in NZ. According to the RFU, the Professional Rugby Director, Rob Andrew and Legal Governance director, Karena Vleck concluded "Tindall's actions reached a level of misconduct that was unacceptable", and though the allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation against the Dunedin Three "were entirely false." Whether Johnno backed Andrew's decision or not, we shall likely never know.
But Wednesday 16th November dawned and the final straw was Johnno's resignation. Not for the first time there was much concern over Rob Andrew, his position, his culpability, and not just in the press room; he even garnered his own hashtag of #AndrewOut in the world of social media. At the press conference, Andrew looked decidedly uncomfortable throughout, not actually answering any question - forever the consummate politician, whilst for the most part Johnno came across as he always has, straight, dignified, respectful, and there was even one moment of light-heartedness at the end.
But Johnno's defence of Andrew was impalpable, even answering questions directed at the Professional Rugby Director, conveniently giving Andrew an out. According to Johnno, the reasons for his resignation were many, he alluded to the players "misbehaviour" but did not directly blame them. Andrew replied to most questions curtly, took no responsibility and made it very clear that he is "absolutely not considering resigning", even accusing the press of having no understanding "of how a multi-million pound operation functions".
Not meaning to be impertinent, but most journalists do in fact work for very successful multi-million pound businesses. One has attempted to delve into the background of Andrew, and have discerned he achieved a double Blue at Cambridge in rugby and cricket, and as is par for the course for Cambridge students, 10 terms after finishing his Bachelors degree, a Master of Arts was conferred upon him - but this enhanced degree requires no work or examinations passed the original BA. Following his student days, Andrew joined DTZ Debenham Thorpe overseeing surveyors before taking on the role of player and Director of Rugby at Newcastle Falcons in 1995 as the game turned professional. With the exception of the first year of professionalism when the club won the Allied Dunbar Premiership, under his tenure, Newcastle never rose into the top half of the table in the English Premiership, and so he left to join the RFU. I suspect every journalist in the room had at least as much business experience as Mr Andrew, who says he shall not be moved.
But let us return to the man of the moment. Writing this feels like writing an obituary. Should he have taken the job in the first place? I think not. Was he coerced into resigning? Absolutely not. The hope is that in years to come, Martin Johnson, Commander of the British Empire, will return to England Rugby when he is older and wiser, and it is a stronger, happier, efficiently run financial venture, devoid of petty politics and the old boys club, and that those fighting for reform from within, win out.
But for now, Johnno has left the building...let him be remembered thus: