|Jump or pushed? Johnson walked away from his contract six weeks before it was due to expire [GALLO/GETTY]|
England manager Martin Johnson will not renew his contract next month, he said on Wednesday after a 3-1/2 year stint in charge culminated in a rugby World Cup campaign dogged by problems on and off the pitch and a miserable quarter-final exit.
“I’ve obviously thought long and hard about this and it’s the right decision for me and the England team,” Johnson, who confirmed his decision at a news conference, had said in a statement issued by the Rugby Football Union (RFU).
“We have come a long way in the last three-and-a-half years and a lot of credit should go to the coaches, back-room staff and players,” he said.
“We have developed some exciting young players in the last 18 months or so and I believe English rugby has a bright future.
“I’ve had great support from everyone involved in the England squad, the Elite Rugby Department and the whole of the RFU and I wish them all the best for the future.”
Johnson, England’s 2003 World Cup-winning captain, was appointed in 2008 after the sacking of Brian Ashton despite having no coaching experience.
His contract runs until the end of December.
After a difficult first two years he steered England to their first Six Nations title in eight years last season but was always going to be judged on the World Cup.
His contract was due to expire at the end of next month and Johnson had made clear in October, after the 19-12 quarter-final loss to France, that he was considering his position.
A series of unwanted front-page headlines accompanied England’s underwhelming World Cup campaign with stand-in captain Mike Tindall subsequently thrown out of the elite player squad and handed a hefty fine for his off-field antics.
Tindall, married to Queen Elizabeth’s granddaughter Zara, was photographed drinking with a “mystery blonde” in a bar in Queenstown during the tournament.
Johnson defended Tindall and his team mates, who had permission to go drinking that night, and also struggled to comprehend the criticism of the team’s on-pitch performances.
He rightly pointed out that England won all their pool games, including an awkward opener against Argentina, and had the best defensive record of the group stage.
However, they struggled to impose themselves against Georgia and were facing an unprecedented pool-stage exit when they trailed Scotland before eventually scraping a victory.
Johnson controversially selected flyhalf Toby Flood at centre – dropping Tindall – for the quarter-final and then saw his previously watertight defence leak 16 unanswered points in the opening half-hour against a French team who had previously been humiliated by Tonga.
England returned home to a cascade of criticism after equalling their worst World Cup finish and Johnson was very much in the firing line.
“We were knocked out in the quarter-finals and we played poorly throughout the competition,” former RFU vice-chairman and Lions prop Fran Cotton said last month.
“Martin has now been in charge 3-1/2 years and it is very difficult to understand what type of play this England rugby team is all about. “
– Fran Cotton
“Martin has now been in charge 3-1/2 years and it is very difficult to understand what style of play this England rugby team is all about.”
Speculation about who might replace Johnson has been clouded by internal chaos at the RFU, with former chairman and acting CEO Martyn Thomas leaving next month.
Professional rugby director Rob Andrew’s position has also been uncertain as the RFU conducts a series of reviews into its own governance and the World Cup performance but he told Wednesday’s news conference he was not considering resigning.
Nick Mallett, the former South Africa and Italy coach, is available and expressed an interest in the job last week, while Graham Henry, fresh from leading New Zealand to the World Cup, might be tempted out of retirement by the RFU.
Should the prospect of a foreign coach prove too much for whoever eventually gets to make the decision then Jim Mallinder, who steered Northampton to the Heineken Cup final last year and who previously coached England’s second-string Saxons team with great success, is the bookmakers’ favourite.
Andrew gave no clues as to who Johnson’s successor might be.
“All aspects of the management and coaching structure will be reviewed and until then it would not be appropriate to talk about a replacement for Martin,” he said in a statement.