The obstinacy that characterised Martin Johnson as a player was widely cited as a weakness during his time as England manager yet had he stuck to his guns to the end he might now be revelling in another World Cup win instead of stepping down.

Johnson decided to walk away from his post on Wednesday, six weeks before his contract either expired or was renewed, but his fate was probably sealed in his own mind in Auckland on October 8.

That was when England were beaten 19-12 by a previously abject France in a World Cup quarter-final, having shipped 16 points in a defensively calamitous first 30 minutes.

Johnson, controversially, had opted to play flyhalf Toby Flood at inside centre, dropping long-serving Mike Tindall.

Tindall, a team mate of Johnson's in the 2003 World Cup-winning side, had failed to produce much in the way of attacking spark for many years but he organised England's defensive line and was a key element in them conceding the fewest tries of any team in the pool stage.

Johnson, desperate to include Flood but not wanting to do without the comfort blanket of Jonny Wilkinson, despite the talisman struggling for form, went against his instincts by gambling on the experimental midfield in the most important game of his three-and-half-year tenure -- and paid the ultimate price.

Of course England might not have beaten France with Tindall in the team and even if they had, there was no guarantee they would have got past Wales or been able to threaten New Zealand.

Yet, as France showed in the final, anything was possible and Johnson will no doubt go to his grave thinking what if I had stuck with the tried and tested?


It is impossible to imagine he made the change because of media pressure as, throughout his long and distinguished playing career and during his roller-coaster management ride, he made no secret of his total lack of interest in any opinion proffered by journalist or pundit.

In the build-up to the World Cup he steadfastly defended his regular inclusion of Shontayne Hape, another centre who rarely caught the eye but just as rarely missed a tackle, but, come the tournament, Hape was relegated to the also-rans.

It was a similar story in his early years when Johnson would not hear a word against captain Steve Borthwick, yet, after injury ruled the lock out of the 2010 tour to Australia, he was never again included in a squad.

As a captain, Johnson admits he said little, preferring to inspire his team mates by what he did on the pitch, but as a coach or manager that was never going to be enough.

In his defence, he did not seek the role. After sacking Brian Ashton six months after he had taken England to the World Cup final the Rugby Football Union (RFU) turned to Johnson, despite him having absolutely no coaching experience.

Johnson, who also captained the British and Irish Lions to a rare series victory in South Africa in 1997, was enjoying a relaxed and lucrative retirement as an ambassador but agreed to return to the fold to help his country.

He insisted on the title of manager and kept in place the assistant coaches who had worked under the previous regimes and whose own futures are surely also now on the line.

Critics said it was a desperate, populist appointment by the RFU but nevertheless gave the fledgling manager an easy ride in his first years despite a succession of poor results amid some of the dullest performances ever seen at Twickenham.

Last year, however, it seemed as if Johnson's England may have turned the corner.


An impressive victory over Australia in Sydney under new captain Lewis Moody was followed up with an effervescent victory over the Wallabies at Twickenham, when Chris Ashton's length-of-the field try encapsulated the buoyant approach of some of the young players breaking into the team.

Then came a first Six Nations title since the glory year of 2003, though that triumph was tinged with concern after the champions-elect were thumped by Ireland in their final match.

Nevertheless, England travelled to New Zealand in good heart and, as Johnson never tired of reminding everyone, won every pool game and had the best defence in the tournament.

The bare results, though, could not paper over some alarming cracks.

Indiscipline on the pitch, a problem that dogged Johnson's entire tenure despite his famed aura, continued to hurt England, who were briefly facing a humiliating pool-stage exit when they trailed Scotland before pulling things round.

Off the pitch a succession of relatively minor indiscretions eventually morphed into a situation where the squad appeared out of control.

Johnson seemed genuinely baffled at the worldwide interest in new royal family member Tindall's drunken nightclub adventures, as his rugby player drinks beer, shocker comment indicated.

Since the tournament ended those distractions have been widely held up as playing an important part in what turned out to be England's equal-worst World Cup performance.

Johnson did not agree and knows, as do all the players, that a place in an unprecedented third successive final was there for the taking whatever went on in Queenstown.

For Johnson and Tindall, both now in the international wilderness, the 2011 World Cup was not their finest hour but if they had stuck together for just two more weeks, who knows, it just might have been.

(Editing by Sonia Oxley)