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Martin Johnson

Martin Johnson

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BornSolihull, March 9 1970
Internationals84 caps between 1993 and 2004
InductedJune 4 2005

Martin Johnson’s deeds for England and Leicester had already guaranteed him a place on the Wall of Fame, but his place in the pantheon of great rugby union players to have graced Twickenham during has also been fully endorsed by the fans.

The supporters voted Johnson, the former England, British and Irish Lions and Leicester Tigers captain, the player of the century, above the 99 other giants of the world game who have played at Billy Williams’ famous  ‘cabbage patch’.

But England’s most successful captain is a genuinely modest man. He could barely believe he had been inducted on to the Wall of Fame, let alone been voted the best of the best.

“Being on the Wall of Fame is a bit unreal,” said Johnson, whose record as captain of England saw 34 victories in 39 Tests, including the historic victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final. “You see what you have done, but then there are the names of players from history – people you never saw play, such as Wavell Wakefield, Tony O’Reilly, Coin Meads or whoever. They are followed by the guys you grew up watching, Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams. Then there are the likes of Jean-Pierre Rives, Bill Beaumont, so it does seem a bit strange to see your own name up there, next to their names.”

As for being first among equals, he added: “There is no way I am the best player in that collection of 100 players.” In fact he puts his elevation to that lofty status down to Sydney in 2003, when England beat Australia for the fifth time under Johnson’s captaincy, to become the first Northern Hemisphere team to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy.

“It was more a vote for England winning the 2003 World Cup. It is in people’s memories,” he said with typical pragmatism.
There is no question of his right to be named among the hundred, though, because his feats as lineout expert and leader are legion – especially at Twickenham.

In 44 tests at HQ, Johnson, as player and captain, was on the losing side on just five occasions (Ireland 1994, South Africa 1995, France 1996, Australia 1998 and New Zealand in the 1999 Rugby World Cup). There were also two drawn Tests along the way, both in the autumn of 1997 – 15-15 with Australia and the famous 26-26 draw with the All Blacks a week later.

With so many matches for club and country, Johnson could be forgiven for not being able to recall them all, but most players tend to remember their debut for their club and most certainly their country, especially if the match was on home turf – even if they do claim it was all a bit of blur at the time.

But for Johnson, who has always managed to stand out from the crowd, it truly was a bit of a blur.

To be fair there was not a lot of material for his memory to latch on to. For a start he did not have the benefit of a week-long build-up to the match against France in 1993. He had been scheduled to turn out in the A international at Welford Road the night before.
Instead, with 24 hours before the full England match was scheduled to kick-off at Twickenham, Wade Dooley pulled out after failing to recover from a thigh injury. So the then England manager Geoff Cooke sent for the 22-year-old greenhorn to partner the 6ft 10in Martin Bayfield in the second row.

“I got a bang on the head after about 20 minutes,” Johnson explained, “I was pretty much concussed, so the game is a bit hazy really. I didn’t go off, I played on, but I didn’t really realise that I was playing for England.

“I can remember the day before, but the day of the game, actually going there is very hazy. The thing is when you are concussed, the short term memory gets affected and having only had 24 hours’ notice that I was in the England team, I found it peculiar that I was actually playing. It was a very strange experience. It was a little bit like a dream – it was almost like I was watching it on TV.
“I was on automatic pilot for a bit, before I eventually came round and gathered my senses. Then I realised that I was actually playing for England. But I have no recollection of half-time. None at all. In fact, either side of half-time I have no memory at all.”

For the record (and Johnson’s benefit) England won the match by a point. Johnson was aware of that, because he did recover enough to recall the final quarter of the game. “Towards the end of the game, when I came round, I can remember I started to win some lineout balls, but apart from that the memory is not very sharp.”

Contemporary match reports did not appear to pick up on the fact that Johnson played for much of the match in a daze. He and Bayfield were credited with holding their own in the lineouts against the formidable pairing of Abdelatif Benazzi and Olivier Roumat. Indeed Johnson’s second-half performance impressed greatly, prompting one observer to remark, presciently, that his two-handed takes suggested England had a ready replacement for Dooley when the time came.

Dooley himself, a reluctant spectator, observed after Johnson’s debut, that no England player could take his place for granted, adding that the Leicester rookie’s ability to win possession under pressure right at the end did much to allow England to hang on for victory. So, hazy it might have been to Johnson, but his international debut certainly made a sharp and lasting impression.

Johnson’s first appearance for Leicester at Twickenham, later that season in 1993, is truly etched in his memory. “My first Cup final in 1993 was big. We were a very young team. I was just 23. Graham Rowntree and Richard Cockerill were both 22. Neil Back played in that match and Matt Poole. The oldest players were Dean Richards and John Wells, who would have been in their late twenties.”

For one thing it got the monkey off their backs of never having won a Cup since the start of the 1980s. But there is another reason Johnson remembered the 1993 Cup final: because he nearly didn’t make it to the ground. At one point it looked as if he might have to spend the day of the final, which was against Harlequins, listening to the match on his car radio.

“Leicester had established this tradition for the Cup final – I think the first time they ever got to a final they went down and back in one day. So from then on it was a day trip,” explained Johnson.

“On this particular occasion the team bus was due to leave the ground in time to get to a hotel at Heathrow for lunch. So before heading to the ground I dropped my girlfriend off, for her to get on the supporters’ coach. I then set off for Welford Road.

“Unfortunately on the way there I passed the team bus, heading in the opposite direction. In those days they used to make two stops, so I went back to the supporters’ hotel, thinking they may have gone there, but not so. Instead I learned they had gone down the motorway, so I tried to chase them. I ended up driving myself down to the game.

“The players had got on the bus and, thinking everyone was there, had set off without me. They were on the motorway before they realised I wasn’t on the bus and they were obviously panicking because they were a player short.”

The most remarkable thing about that tale is that no one had noticed that Johnson was not with them. He is a pretty difficult man to miss, because, at 6ft 7in and 18st, the Market Harborough-born lock forward really does tend to stand out from the crowd. The good news was that he did make it to Twickenham and even managed to score a try “off a penalty move” and Tigers beat Quins to lift the Cup.
“That final was the start of a good run for us.” And for Johnson. They won the Cup again in 1997, although were it not for the fact that they triumphed, Johnson would possibly have consigned his memories of that day to oblivion. It was supposed to be the highlight of the first season of professional rugby in England, but Johnson said: “It was the worst Cup final I ever played in. We beat Sale 9-3. It was a grey wet day at Twickenham and it was a horrendous game of rugby.”

At one point that season Leicester had been on for a treble of European Cup, Domestic Cup and League, but by the time they dragged their battered bodies and minds to Twickenham, Johnson said, “the team was mentally exhausted. We also had the Anglo-Welsh Cup and I had played something approaching 40 games.”

So the disappointment of missing out on the treble was not really a mystery. As Johnson said: “To win something, and the Cup was still part of the club game’s heritage then, was special.” Even more so since the silverware was won at Twickenham.

That Cup final apart, Johnson does not have indelible memories of any single match at Twickenham. However, his second cap for England, won later in 1993 when England beat a formidable New Zealand team for the first time since 1983 (and only the third time at Twickenham), does strike a chord with him. “In those days we didn’t play the All Blacks very often, so that was a significant win.”
What sticks most in Johnson’s memory is a number of matches. “Probably the sequence of games in 2002-2003. We beat New Zealand and Australia in close games and also beat South Africa.” By this time Johnson had been appointed captain by Clive Woodward and the rugby world saw the beginnings of the remarkable effect this partnership was to have on English rugby.

New Zealand were first up, and no pushover – indeed they were pressing hard at the end and it took some sterling defence to keep them out. But thanks in part to Jonny Wilkinson, who claimed a full house of a try, two conversions, three penalty goals and a drop goal for a personal tally of 21 points three tries, plus further points from Lewis Moody and Ben Cohen, the Red Rose prevailed over the Silver Fern. Wilkinson’s feat took him past Jonathan Callard’s record of most points by an individual against the All Blacks.

Australia were next, just a week later. “We were quite comfortable at half-time against Australia, then the ball squirted out of a ruck and Elton Flatley went about 80 yards and scored a try. Suddenly we were behind, so we had to fight and we did. We won by a point.”
They went on to beat South Africa quite handsomely the following week, running in seven tries.

After a brief break over Christmas it was back to winning ways in the Six Nations, when they extended their winning run at Twickenham to six Tests, winning the 2003 Grand Slam in the process. “The atmosphere at Twickenham throughout that sequence of games was very special,” recalled Johnson.

The Grand Slam was followed by victories over New Zealand and Australia on their own patch as England built up momentum for the 2003 Rugby World Cup. By the time they had won the Webb Ellis Trophy, Johnson’s personal unbroken tally of victories had reached 17, albeit that run was interspersed by other captains when Johnson was unavailable or rested.

By the time he retired from international rugby after the final in Sydney, Johnson certainly had a great deal to look back on in his impressive career. Twickenham featured very high in his memory bank, although he did say that, yes, matches at HQ really do tend to be a blur. “Once the match kicks off you are in playing mode, and you deliberately blank out a lot of the crowd and those other personal thoughts, in order to concentrate on the game.”

But just before kick-off is definitely special for him. “That bit when you walk out on to the Twickenham pitch is one of the best bits – that moment when you walk on to the field and the adrenalin surges through you. Walking out and lining up for the anthem – I always regarded that as being a bit of personal time, when you gather your final thoughts before you play.”

Is there a difference when stepping out on to the hallowed turf these days? “Definitely. As the manager there is definitely a difference when you come out on to the pitch. You are not having to prepare yourself mentally for the match, as you do when you are a player. As a manager you just go out and get your thoughts – it is a very different process.”

Is it something he misses? “When, as a manager, you hear the anthems start – that’s the bit when you want to be back on the field, when you really miss being a player.”

Throughout his career Johnson was also a frequent visitor to southwest London as a member of the hugely successful Leicester Tigers sides of the 1990s and early 2000s, when they contested (and usually won) Cup final after Cup final. When the play-offs were introduced, Premiership finals were added to the list.

Johnson remembered his Leicester forays to Twickenham with at least as much fondness as he did his England appearances there, but his first experience of Twickenham was as a young Tigers’ fan.

“I started watching Leicester in 1982 when I was 11 and the next year, 1983, when they got to the final, I went to Twickenham and saw them lose to Bristol. Stuart Barnes was playing at fly half and they had that big winger, John Carr, who scored two tries.” By then Leicester had created a little bit of English rugby history by becoming the first club to win the domestic Cup three years in a row.
“My impressions of Twickenham as a 13-year-old were that it was a big, green place. It was still the classic 1920s stadium, with the stands painted in that distinctive classic green. Compared to club rugby grounds around the country it would have been so much more impressive to me. After all, it was Twickenham. I watched England play Wales sometime in the 1980s. I don’t remember much about the match, or the stadium, but I do recall the pitch was in very good nick and the grass being very long.”

For the adult Johnson, Twickenham means even more. “The first game I played in at Twickenham, when I made my England debut in 1993, the old West Stand was still in use. The new one was built a year or so later. I’m quite a traditionalist: I liked the old, wooden, creaky changing rooms. The things that have been held over from that were the individual baths – and the weather vane.”

The changing rooms and the baths are famous, but the weather vane – designed by Kenneth Dalgliesh and depicting Hermes (Mercury) passing a rugby ball to a 20th-century player – is not so obvious. It is not so famous as Old Father Time at Lord’s cricket ground, but when the West Stand was demolished in the early 1990s, it was carefully taken down and restored when the new stand was completed. Johnson took time out from his interview to look it up on the internet to confirm that it was where he said it was.

Like the majority of his fellow inductees Johnson has fond memories of the deep baths, which still have a place in the new changing rooms, although it would appear they are strangers to hot water in the hi-tech age of professional rugby. “These days players have ice baths, but there was something nice about just dropping into your own warm bath after a game.”

But there is far more to the ground than baths and the weather vane. “It’s your home ground, that makes it special. It’s Twickenham. The name itself is synonymous with England and English rugby. And while those green-sided stands were what I would always think about as a youngster, obviously as you get older it’s a lot of other things.

“The thing about Twickenham is that you have the whole lot. It’s being on the pitch. Then there’s the West Car Park brigade.” Even the journey to the ground has its own special moments. “The pub in Whitton. The team bus used to drive past that pub and everyone would be standing outside it.”

“Of course things have changed, even in my relatively short life, since I first went there 30 years ago. In those days when England had just two Five Nations matches a season there, going to Twickenham as a fan was almost like going on a pilgrimage.

“International matches there against Ireland, Scotland and Wales are like the soul of the game. They are part of the English sporting calendar, rather like the FA Cup final, Lord’s Test matches, Wimbledon – these fixtures are in that category of sporting events in this country. They are about tradition.”

Traditionalist he may be, but Johnson still welcomes the World Rugby Museum’s Wall of Fame. “I grew up in a time where there was a total of four weekends of rugby on television, in the Five Nations, that was probably it for the year. Now you can watch half a dozen games in one weekend on television.

“And I like the history of rugby union. There is less film footage of those old players who are on the Wall of Fame than there is, say, of footballers of the same eras, so it is easy to forget those names. But those players are the ones who made rugby what it is, so it is important to preserve the memory of them on the Wall. It is frightening how quickly players are forgotten once they stop playing.”
It is highly unlikely that England’s own Colossus, Martin Johnson, will ever be forgotten – by team-mates, opponents or supporters of the game. However much he may play down his influence on England and English rugby, his feats have already gone down in legend.

Article by Dai Llewellyn


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