When it comes to filling the managerial vacuum at Leicester left by the sacking of a larger-than-life character like Richard Cockerill, there is no question that the man who looms largest is Martin Johnson. And not just because of the length of his shadow.
It is a given that Johnson’s credentials as a Lions, England and Leicester legend make him one of the most influential figures in the sport. He is the ‘Captain Colossus’ who took England to World Cup glory in 2003 having already achieved the high point of leading the 1997 Lions to victory in South Africa.
However, Johnson never forgot that it was his club that gave him the springboard for those successes on the international stage, and he returned the favour in spades, captaining Leicester throughout a period in which they dominated European and English rugby. Under Johnson’s leadership the Tigers won successive European Cup titles (2001 and 2002), as well as four Premiership titles (1999, 2000, 2001, 2002).
To say that Leicester is in Johnson’s DNA is like saying Stephen Hawking understands cosmology and this week there has been no shortage of speculation that he will be installed as minder-in-chief above Kiwi head coach Aaron Mauger in a bid to launch Leicester back on the path to glory.
That there is a hunger for success in the East Midlands after a fallow three-year period with no silverware goes without saying. As England’s best supported club, with gates at Welford Road regularly above 20,000, Tigers fans expect success.
The big hitch about a potential marriage made in heaven which reunites Johnson with Tigers is that his first foray into manager/rugby director territory with England ended unhappily. His resignation after the 2011 World Cup, and the furore surrounding the off-field behaviour of the England squad, is rumoured to have scarred him deeply.
Johnson knows all about the pressure and burden of expectation that comes with life in the managerial hot-seat, and the question is whether he wants to go there again. A well-informed Leicester insider told me this week that, as long as Johnson has the appetite for the week in week out demands, he has all the attributes required.
“Whatever Johnno does, he does well. Somebody ought to be keeping tabs on him because he’s a man of considerable talent, and highly respected. He’s still got a lot to give the game – but he’s also a man who knows his own mind. The England fallout would have hurt him and his family, and he might not want to take that risk again – and he does well enough in earning terms around the game probably not to have to.”
He added that Leicester’s most successful periods in the pro era involved former Tigers players in coaching or managerial positions.
“We have not been afraid to embrace people with serious rugby experience from all around the world – but we had our most successful years with Dean Richards and Pat Howard, both former Leicester players.”
It is inconceivable that the ten-strong Leicester board – which includes former Leicester players Ben Kay, Rory Underwood and long-standing mover-and-shaker Peter Tom – will not have been keeping tabs on Johnson, especially as he still lives in Leicestershire.
At 46, and with top end experience of the rough and tumble of life as an elite rugby manager, Johnson looks like the perfect fit for the Welford Road hot-seat. However, after that bruising experience he has spent five years away from the sharp end of the game, and it is possible that he could see the risk as being too great.
However, we know Johnson is an arch competitor who loves being involved in sport, and that he will have learned from his England experience. With the benefit of hindsight he might recognise that he was still too close to some of his 2003 team-mates when he took over as England manager in 2008, and that it sometimes clouded his judgement.
By the same token, those who present his tenure as England manager as an unmitigated disaster should take off the blinkers. In just over three years his England side won a Six Nations title (2011), were runners-up (2009), drew a two-Test tour series in Australia (2010), and reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup – losing to a France side that should have beaten New Zealand in the final. Two tour defeats by New Zealand in 2008 are sometimes erroneously added to his record, even though Rob Andrew was caretaker manager and Johnson did not go. With those scrubbed off, his record of played 38, won 21, drawn 1, lost 16 is no Armageddon, especially as he was given the job despite having no experience of management.
At the time, I believed his grounding as such an influential captain meant he might be able to make the transition in one mighty leap, in the same way Dean Richards had done in taking Tigers to two Heineken Cup titles.
That it turned out to be a painful landing was probably because the sounding boards and wise counsel Richards had available to him at Leicester were not in place for Johnson at Twickenham.
However, Johnson never let a bit of pain and discomfort trouble him as a player – and he never backed down from a challenge. That’s why Johnson and Leicester still look made for each other.