30 November 2003

Captain’s tale an honest and earthy self-portrait

We knew he was quicker than he looks, but this is ridiculous. Last Saturday’s World Cup final was just the latest proof that Martin Johnson can shift that 19st of `Terminator’ bulk much faster than opponents expect, now he has done it on paper. There are 160,000 copies of Martin Johnson-The Autobiography, with a final chapter emailed out from Sydney after midnight their time last Sunday, already gleaming in the shops across the country. You feel the very pages must be panting with the rush.

There are over 350 of them and they begin with one of the best ever opening lines: “If you think I am ugly now you should have seen me when I was born.” Much of what follows is firm, clear and fascinating, but the hustled-up closing pages do lead to a last sentence almost as dull as the first is sparky: “I need some quiet time to reflect [over whether to retire] to talk to the right people, but it will be my decision and made for the right reasons.”

To be critical, that World Cup chapter does get a bit close to Dr Samuel Johnson’s (no relation) famous misogynistic comparison of a woman preaching to a dog walking on its hind legs – “It is not done well: but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Such haste is not that great a cost to pay for the oil-well bonanza of being able to put a `trophy aloft’ winning picture on the front cover and give us the great man’s early thoughts on what it was like to receive immortality at the Telstra Stadium.

For later editions the author and publishers will no doubt re-jig this final passage to truly portray its impact not just on Martin but on the very nation itself. For now we have an honest, earthy and often dryly perceptive self portrait – “readers may be surprised to know that I was a reasonably intelligent child”. While rugby fans will have plenty of good meat to chew on in the multiple trophy, 82-cap, 15-year Johnson career, it is the two recent personal dramas that are most revealing, the death of his mother, Hilary, last year and the birth of his daughter, Molly, this spring.

Hilary Johnson had been a life force beyond compare. There is a great story of her warming up early to make sure of winning the mother’s race, there is an Eighties picture of her and husband David, along with Martin and his two brothers, Andrew and Will, as entries for Britain’s fittest family, there is the most poignant account of the last holiday all together when terminal cancer had taken over and the final, bittersweet farewell – “Bye Mum, miss you like mad.”

Molly Johnson was born on March 20 (Johnson’s birthday) this year – “the best present I will ever have or could ever have asked for”. There is no morbid sentimentality and glutinous self-advertisement about these passages, and their directness is reflected throughout the book with no concessions to the squeamish.

Formative days in New Zealand included wild boar hunting with a carving knife as well as a Junior All Black cap. Captaincy tributes to Will Carling – “I speak as I find and I liked and respected him” – and Dean Richards – “utterly old school, anti-modernist and one of the least pretentious guys you could ever meet”, are tempered with memories of `To My Left’ Richards’ favourite post-match game. “Essentially it involves punching the guy to your left. Believe me no one wanted to sit to the left of Deano, all 20st and ham-sized fists.”

Martin Johnson’s time has taken us into the professional age and his judgments on everything from Bob Dwyer’s sacking at Leicester, to the England players’ strike, to the unhappy Lions tour of 2001 are unapologetic, but generous to others and unsparing of himself. “I was a fan before I was a player,” he writes, “and I remember the excitement and drama when a match erupted. Clearly, I am not an angel. I straight-armed the Argentinian scrum-half in a game in 1996 and could have cost us the match with my stupidity. I have been binned a few times for throwing punches and fair enough. I smacked Matt Dawson once, though one or two people might congratulate me for that!”

Martin Johnson is a man you want to follow. The 350 hardback pages are quite a journey, but, with the World Cup still intoxicating us this Christmas, millions will feel compelled to make the trip.

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