I feel bad for Martin Johnson in all of this

 

FROM THE BLINDSIDE:We’ve all had to do performance reviews, but what really struck me about all the comments that came out of the English review was that very little was said about the players themselves

PERFORMANCE REVIEWS, player reviews, inquests – call them what you like. We’ve all had to do them at one stage or another. At their best, they’re open and honest forums where people look back over the mistakes they made and try to find a way to fix them. But unless people come at them with the right attitude, they can just turn into a bitchfest. Looking from the outside in, that seems to be what has happened with the England squad since the World Cup.

It doesn’t always have to be that way. In my time playing for Ireland we were involved in two post-World Cup reviews, one in 1999 and one in 2007.

We didn’t have one in 2003 – the union had obviously decided that we’d done well enough in making the quarter-final in Australia not to have to go through with one when we got home.

I remember the first one very well.

We’d gone out of the 1999 World Cup to Argentina in Lens and it was a disaster for everybody – the players, the management, the union, everybody. Professionalism wasn’t going an awful long time back then so a post-tournament review was something that was very new to everyone.

We were all given an appointment to be at a hotel beside the airport first thing on a Monday morning. For the players who were coming up from the country this was perfect. It meant you couldn’t come up on the day, you had to stay the night before.

I drove up to Dublin with Peter Clohessy and Tom Tierney on the Sunday and we went for a few pints that night.

We kind of thought it would just be a quick meeting the next morning, maybe an hour or two long, then we’d have a bit of lunch and head back down the road.

We got a bit of a shock when we landed into the meeting room at nine o’clock on the Monday morning to be handed out sheets by Donal Lenihan outlining our programme for the day.

9am – Morning session.

11am – Tea break for 15 minutes.

1pm – Lunch (back at 2, sharp).

And then I think it was near enough 5.30pm when we finished, just in time for us to hit the traffic heading out of the city.

I was pretty young at the time and so was Tierney so the pair of us made sure we got seats up near the front, trying to look attentive and trying to stay awake for the day. Claw wasn’t so worried about that kind of thing. He went straight to the back of the room and got a seat where nobody would annoy him. After a while, he just lay down on the floor and slept. That was his contribution to the review.

In fairness, most people took it seriously. We were asked for feedback on our preparation, our fitness levels, what we thought of the coaching we got. What mistakes were made and what could be done to avoid them in the future.

Not making the quarter-finals had been a huge blow for the players and for Warren Gatland who was in charge of us at the time.

Everybody was down about what had happened, but we all knew we didn’t want it to descend into a bitching session either.

For one thing, what was done was done at that point. We knew it wouldn’t help anything to be giving out about this, that and the other. Maybe too we hadn’t quite got to the point where accountability was such a big deal. You weren’t going to point fingers and personalise things too much.

Eight years later, things had changed a fair bit, but we were still careful not to let the review turn into something overly negative. This time around, the review was a lot shorter – I think it only lasted about three or four hours. The other thing that changed in the meantime was that people were a bit more open and forthcoming with each other. The coaches were pretty open and honest as well about what they felt they could have done to make things better.

The whole day was genuinely seen as a positive experience.

Eddie O’Sullivan stayed on as coach after it and the players were happy for him to. People didn’t get cynical during the day, the feedback was constructive. The things that needed to be changed were spoken about by players and coaches and when it was all over and done with we went off and had a few Christmas drinks together.

The timing of it was a good idea I thought. It gave everybody a few months to think about what had happened in France and to get their head around what went wrong. There was nothing like the mud-slinging that has happened with the England squad this time around. We had been baffled by the performances in France and this was a chance to talk it out once we’d digested the disappointment.

I found both the reviews I was involved in to be positive experiences because people came at them with the right attitude. Even Claw, in his own way. What you have to remember – and what has been overlooked in the case of England’s review – is that not everything that appears in these reviews should to be taken as gospel.

When you sit down with a pen and a sheet of paper, all you’re offering is your opinion and your impressions of what went on. Those opinions can’t always be right or even that relevant some of the time.

What really struck me about all the comments that came out of the English review was that there was very little said about the players themselves. They seemed to have opinions about John Wells and Brian Smith, about the RFU, about their training pitch and game plans and a whole load of stuff.

But with one or two exceptions, there was hardly anything about the people who actually walked onto the pitch to perform.

That can be the problem with these reviews. If you allow everybody to throw a load of opinions into the pot and you take everything that’s said as a given, then you just end up with a bunch of whiners. All the more so when you’re talking about a team that’s been losing.

Obviously, the report should never have been leaked and that side of it was a shambles.

It’s hard to see now how any of those players would ever take part in another review in the future. Or if they do, they’ll be a lot less free and easy with their opinions. But all you can take from the fact that it was leaked is that somebody wanted it all out there.

Somebody wanted the world to see what the England players had become.

The impression I got of that English squad was that there are a lot of young guys in it who really haven’t been around long enough to have an opinion worth giving too much time to.

Maybe that’s why there isn’t a whole lot of blame taken on by the players in the comments that have been in the papers. I’d be much more interested in what the senior players would have to say about what went on.

In any team, in any squad, it’s the senior players that are the link to the management. They’ve been around, they’ve seen how things were done well in the past and how they were done badly. They know that concentrating exclusively on the negative side of things gets you nowhere in the end.

That’s what amazed me most about what came out of the English review.

Everything was so negative and so personalised when it came to the coaches. There was a really dismissive tone to some of the things they wrote. Like saying these coaches were out of their depth, that there must be at a least 20 coaches in the Premiership who’d be better. That’s going way beyond constructive criticism. And again, it’s just an opinion. There are no facts to back it up.

In all of this, I feel bad for Martin Johnson. Here’s a man you could have nothing but respect for and yet this review shows that he was in charge of players who just didn’t show him enough respect. He was loyal to them and they repaid him like this.

The England players let themselves down in New Zealand by behaving childishly and having very little discipline off the field. They were living in a bubble over there and a few of them thought they were superstars. That was the opinion the general public had of them, it was the perception they were giving out.

Now maybe that’s unfair but opinions can be like that. They won’t always be fair.

Nobody should know that better than the England players who contributed so negatively to the review.


Alan Quinlan’s column appears inevery Wednesday.