Martin Johnson's road to the 2015 World Cup has turned into the Way of the Cross, with all its pain and humiliation, and there is no guarantee he will reach the end of it — or even be given the chance to travel so much as a yard down its length.
Martyn Thomas, the acting chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, made it clear in a strikingly candid address in Auckland yesterday that the shop-soiled England manager's future is under very serious threat as a result of his team's implosion at this tournament.
Some of his misbehaving players will also be feeling acutely uncomfortable, for they are about to have the book thrown at them.
Johnson, whose current contract expires on December 31, has until tomorrow week to decide whether he wants to remain in charge.
Even if he expresses an interest in doing so, he will be subject to what is certain to be a penetrating external review of his performance — not just over these calamitous few weeks in New Zealand, but across the entire three-and-a-half year span of his tenure — headed by the forthright former England prop and Lions manager Fran Cotton, still a heavyweight political bruiser in Twickenham circles even though he has been out of the front line of rugby governance for some time.
As Cotton has already taken to the airwaves with a fierce critique of what has been going on, there is a strong possibility that the Johnson regime will fall, taking an entire elite coaching staff with it.
Try this for size: “Martin has now been in charge [since 2008] and it is very difficult to understand what style of play this England team is all about. The basic skills of rugby just aren't good enough and I haven't seen an improvement in the last three and a half years.”
So said Cotton in a television interview this week. When Thomas confirmed his intention to sanction a review under the leadership of his old ally, he did not know of these comments. On being told, he looked startled.
Before Thomas hands the CEO duties to an incoming full-timer at the end of the year, Johnson's future will have been subject to a flurry of reviews: one led by the director of elite rugby Rob Andrew as his line manager; one involving the professional game board, which brings senior figures from the Premiership club scene and the players' union together with RFU delegates; and the Cotton venture.
Thomas was crystal clear that the Cotton review would be the most important. “Fran will report by the end of November,” he said.
“We are unhappy with what happened on the field and the off-field behaviour was wholly unacceptable. Martin has always made it clear that he is the manager, that he runs the team, that the buck stops with him. We need to know what happened because I don't think anyone could accuse the RFU of not giving all the necessary support. Everything the England team wanted was provided.
“As for the misconduct among the players, Karina Vleck (the RFU's legal officer) will investigate all allegations over the next couple of weeks.
“I certainly believe Martin was let down. Whether he himself was culpable, I can't go into today.”