LONDON - Martin Johnson passionately defended England's World Cup coaching staff on Friday, insisting the leaked player reports that have plunged English rugby into the worst crisis in its history fail to paint a true picture.
The reputation of the Rugby Football Union and its national team was left in tatters after the release of selected excerpts of player evaluations, written in confidence in an attempt to get to the bottom of what happened under Johnson's watch at the World Cup.
Amid reports of player greed, infighting and indiscipline that may have accounted for England's abject showing in New Zealand was heavy criticism of the methods of Johnson and fellow coaches John Wells, Mike Ford and Brian Smith.
Commenting for the first time since the leaking of the reports to The Times of London, Johnson — who quit as head coach last week — said he felt compelled to speak out.
"They are opinions, they are certainly not truths, written in an emotive time for everyone post a tournament," Johnson said. "The way it's been reported, the imbalance of that report to me is one of the worst things because ... there is obviously praise for certain parts and certain people.
"To pick out the most emotive and the worst comments is dangerous and very damaging. One of the things they did in difficult circumstances was stick together."
Johnson, widely considered one of the greatest players in England's history and certainly its best captain, said the leaking of the reports was "one of the worst things I have experienced in the game."
"You don't like seeing criticism of people, of yourself, of players," said the 41-year-old Johnson, whose appointment as England coach in 2008 was criticized by some because of his lack of previous managerial experience.
"Do not take the extreme opinion written in extreme circumstances as fact. You are frustrated because what is being reported is not anywhere near the truth of it."
The episode has left English rugby and the RFU in complete disarray.
Not only does it describe England's current squad of players as a dysfunctional group motivated by money rather than winning matches, it leaves leading RFU officials with even more egg on their faces after a turbulent year in which the governing body was criticized for its botched attempt to hire an elite performance director.
On Thursday, Rob Andrew, the RFU's director of elite rugby, said the national game was at "rock bottom" and those sentiments were echoed by Johnson.
"The saddest thing for me is that it doesn't reflect well on the whole game right now," he said. "A lot of the players are horrified at how it has come out and how it is being reported."
Of all the leaked comments, the one that has captured the most attention is an unnamed player reportedly saying, "That's 35,000 pounds down the toilet" after the quarterfinal defeat by France, in reference to the bonus he would have lost.
Damien Hopley, chief executive of the Rugby Players' Association, argued Friday that wouldn't have been a view shared by the majority of the squad.
"These guys are professionals and clearly they want to maximize their income as much as they can, but to disparage them as money orientated and greedy is completely without foundation," Hopley said.
"It is a very unfortunate remark, especially coming in the aftermath of defeat in a World Cup where England didn't play to the best of their ability ... but it's not a fair reflection of the squad as a whole."
The RFU is using an external security firm to investigate the source of what its disciplinary officer Jeff Blackett described as "the most serious leak the union has ever experienced."