3 June 2001
Brough Scott finds the Lions captain ready to dig deep in the quest for a repeat of his 1997 triumph after an all-conquering campaign with Leicester
It was a date even a Lions captain could not miss. Nine days ago Martin Johnson was back in his home town of Market Harborough to unveil a plaque honouring such local heroes as former British heavyweight “Guardsman” Jack Gardiner, Thomas Cook the holiday pioneer and an unfortunate Elizabethan diplomat whom the great queen dispatched to the court of Ivan the Terrible. With Johnson roots are everything.
Time was when his public persona was about as towering and rigid as a giant oak with “Ivanish” tendencies. Press conferences on the last Lions tour in South Africa could be strange affairs which left you wondering whether the new captain was shy, awkward or just plain surly.
To see him in the spectacular setting of Tylney Hall in leafiest, golden Hampshire was a revelation. Success and responsibility have smoothed if not softened the man. Sure his face in repose still harks you instantly back to the big-lipped, joined-eyebrow “Enforcer” frown which has been such an implacable and occasionally fist-swinging presence in his club Leicester’s drive to their recent trophy treble. But now when he speaks his features loosen and the words, when they come, if not flowery are correct and lucid.
“Winning the series last time was pretty exciting and I enjoyed it,” he says. “But this is Lions 2001, and I am very aware that there is increased expectation on the tour party and on me. People latch on to this Martin Johnson who has just been through so much success with Leicester and is now leading the Lions, and think it is all roses. That is not the case. It’s hard work. It’s toil. It’s graft and it can be a grind. I was not responsible for the Lions winning in ’97. I was part of it just as, win or lose, I will be part of this tour. We have got to be very realistic and not get carried away.”
To call Martin Johnson self-effacing would be the ultimate oxymoron for the 6ft, 19st giant now folded into the armchair beside us. Indeed, as the Stade Francais team were but the latest to learn when they tried a David Sole-style slow march on to the pitch in Paris a fortnight ago, he can be the most glowering in-your-face player on the planet.
But central to Johnson’s attraction and inspiration is this absolute belief that rugby, if not life itself, is a team game not an individual one. “We have a lot of international players at Leicester,” says club and Lions team-mate Neil Back, “but there is no one who thinks he is a superstar. If anyone could think that it would be Johnno himself, yet he is a big reason why people just get on with the job. He is the first to give someone a hand but he is also really good at analysis. It’s amazing sometimes how, in the heat of battle, he can sum it up and come out with the right moves. He is very bright but a also a very humble guy.”
Of course, no small thanks for this attitude are due to Johnson’s Leicester mentor and now manager, Dean Richards, whose attitude to self-promotion makes Johnson look like Richard Branson. After all Martin famously posed with just a can of Tetley’s to hide his modesty and his mouth is currently blazoned across billboards complete with lion’s fangs in promoting the Sky TV coverage of the tour. But in truth the roots are much deeper than Dean Richards’ Tigers. They go back, as the ambassador to Ivan the Terrible wished he had, to Market Harborough.
For to say that his parents Dave and Hilary Johnson are sports and particularly Leicester Tigers nuts would be a serious understatement. Dave, a 58-year-old retired battery specialist, was brought up in (his words) “the capital of the sporting world, Wigan”. He played rugby and football and anything else available. His grandfather was a wrestler, his father played rugby for Orrell and his wife Hilary clearly found the demands of being a PE teacher and bringing up three hulking boys – and at one stage two foster sons – not enough for her limitless energy. She switched not just to marathons but to 100 kilometre ultra-marathons to keep herself busy.
Yet when asked about the ultimate parental satisfaction of watching both Martin and younger son Will play together in the European Cup triumph in Paris, Dave said firmly: “No, my strongest feeling was how wonderful it was for Leicester, for everybody at the club, I know how much they have all put in.”
The three-storey family home Burnmill Road may house 24 volumes of Martin Johnson memorabilia but, for much of the year, it also doubles as lodging for young would-be Tigers from overseas. And now that Dave has stepped away from a career which started with a 2.1 degree in chemistry at Liverpool University (the time of Shankly and The Beatles, “I saw them once, they were second on the bill to Terry Lightfoot”) and included technical work on a power station near Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war, (“No there were not that many bombs really”), he spends a couple of hours every afternoon helping to clean the local school.
From all this you will gather that Martin Johnson has competitive sport and community service in the genes (his mother was putting up tents for a school trip in Wales this week). But how about the darker side of his game which last season didn’t just see him sin-binned in the Heineken Cup final but receive a four-match ban for kneeing an opponent in December.
“For me that’s part and parcel of the game,” says Dave Johnson. “Martin would never start anything but sometimes it’s not so much retaliation as extracting his own revenge.” Sounds a bit like a father’s answer but the son himself is a fascinating mixture of contrition and defiance.
“I got sin-binned and let the team down,” he says. “But if I had let Christophe Juillet [who got a fist in his teeth for his pains] pull me into the ruck and their No 9 had come through the hole I was supposed to be defending, that would be letting the team down as well.”
“So there is a line,” he continues, the voice measured like the bank manager he might have become, “and I have been over it sure, most people have. But it is a tough physical game, yet a very clean game, incredibly clean. Football has changed and become less and less physical which is fine. Yet rugby is a very spectacular sport and people do like the contact part of the game. You have to stand toe to toe with these guys and they respect you for it.”
At 31, 11 years on since he actually faced Australian captain John Eales in Sydney when picked for New Zealand Under 21s on his gap year down in “King Country”, Martin Johnson is a great beast in its prime. He is also a man who can put sport and himself in its place.
“I enjoy it more,” he says. “On the first Lions tour [1993 when he flew out as replacement for Wade Dooley] I was just looking after myself to survive. The last one was the first professional tour and I was new to the captaincy.
“But now there is great satisfaction in being involved also in the planning, the tactics, everything,” Johnson adds in what echoes as a simple rebuke to much of the hustings flim-flam currently battering the airwaves, “with being a leader.”