Martin Johnson: Can he pull off a historic double?

In 2003 he captained England to their only rugby World Cup triumph. Now he has his eyes on the prize again – but this time as manager

This morning, playing against Argentina in the city of Dunedin on New Zealand's South Island, England's rugby union team embarks on the quest to go one better than it did in 2007, and to match the achievement of 2003, by winning the World Cup.

Meanwhile, England's footballers have just taken a decidedly unconvincing step towards qualifying for their next big international tournament, next summer's European Championships. At Wembley on Tuesday they beat Wales, 1-0, but it was a stuttering performance, lacking in fluency. In the press conference afterwards, the team's Italian manager, Fabio Capello, also lacked fluency. He was meant, on being appointed in 2008, to have all the answers. It turns out that he barely understands the questions.

A brief consideration of Capello is useful in estimating his rugby union counterpart, Martin Johnson. With the financial implications of sacking Capello nigh-on unthinkable, the national football team is stuck with a manager who, as a player in 1973, scored the winner against England at Wembley. This would be fine with even the most rabid jingoist if he had masterminded tangible success on the European or world stage. But he hasn't. Which gives us licence to resent the fact that his goal in 1973 helped to end the international career of Bobby Moore. Thanks to Capello, the hero of 1966 walked off the Wembley turf a loser, and never played for his country again.

In Johnson, by stark contrast with Capello, England's rugby union team has its Bobby Moore. Only one man knows what it feels like to hoist the rugby World Cup as England captain, and the manager is that man. Far from plotting England's downfall as a player, he was the 6ft 7in embodiment of England's success. When the Twickenham crowd exhorted its sweet chariot to swing low, it knew that in big Johnno it had a man who could not only swing the chariot, but turn it upside down and throw it over the main stand. And yet, for all that, the same rule that applies to Capello applies to Johnson in reverse. The huge stock of goodwill towards him will run out quicker than the pastries in Billy Bunter's satchel if he does not prove to be the winner as a manager that he unequivocally was as a player. By the end of the 2011 rugby World Cup, which began yesterday and will continue for the next six weeks, we will be much closer to knowing how likely this is.

Not many informed judges expect England to win the tournament, and that goes especially for the bookies, who rate England's chances miles behind those of the three mighty southern hemisphere nations, hosts New Zealand, reigning champions South Africa and fast-improving Australia. But Johnson's England is a promising work in progress. They won this year's Six Nations tournament, and a decent World Cup will strengthen his platform for building towards the 2015 competition, on home turf. Nobody will venture the suggestion that perhaps the 41-year-old should move on, spend longer with the family, or get out more on his beloved (and doubtless extremely sturdy) racing bike.

Thus far, nobody has. Johnson's tenure as England manager, which began (very shortly after Capello's appointment) in April 2008, has not been an entirely smooth ride, or without criticism, but practically everyone in rugby union circles now accepts that the job is in the right hands. That begins, most importantly, with the players. Whether to those such as the giant second-row Simon Shaw who once played alongside him, or to the youngsters such as Chris Ashton who were still doing their GCSEs when England won the World Cup in 2003, Johnson has an aura not quite of invincibility, but not far short.

He is not the coach. That he leaves to others better qualified. But he picks the team, makes the decisions and sets the mood. Whether he was right to allow the players alcohol and female companionship during this World Cup campaign remains to be seen, but professional sportsmen do usually respond positively to being treated like adults. However, that is not to say that he is not equally capable of treating them like recalcitrant schoolboys. The large England No 8 Nick Easter is a Desperate Dan of a human being, but when I talked to him a couple of weeks ago, he told me almost sheepishly that Johnson, following England's curiously inept performance in the warm-up game against the Welsh, had delivered "one of the more incandescent rages I've seen from him". It is a truly disturbing image.

Certainly, it is hard to disassociate Johnson's vast, forbidding stature and his saturnine, beetling brow from his personality. Yet on the two or three occasions I have sat down with him to conduct interviews for this newspaper, he has been not just eloquent and forthright, but downright engaging. There are some rugby union enthusiasts who refuse to acknowledge the virtues of other sports, deeming them less manly. Not Johnson. He loves football, supporting Liverpool avidly, and, unusually, enjoys rugby league almost as much as he does union. He is also passionate about American football, so much so that, as his former team-mate Will Greenwood suggests elsewhere in today's paper, it would probably be his specialist subject on Mastermind.

He might do pretty well in the general knowledge round, too. Johnson is a bright cookie, who shone at maths at school in Market Harborough and might have studied it at university, or alternatively followed his mother into teaching PE, if a rugby career hadn't beckoned. Fortuitously, the game was on the brink of turning professional. And ironically, the formative period of his rugby life was spent in New Zealand. He had stood out, not surprisingly, on an Antipodean tour with England Schools. A Kiwi club called Tihoi offered to pay his fare out, and off he went. He stayed for 18 months, thriving on the field to the extent that he represented the All Blacks at under-21 level, and off it by meeting his future wife, Kay. When he came home and signed with Leicester, both his personal and playing futures were determined.



He retired in May 2005, with hosannas ringing in his cauliflower ears, and the last time we met was a couple of years after that, 10 months or so prior to his appointment as England manager. He seemed perfectly happy then watching other men trying to live up to the legacy of 2003. I asked him whether perhaps he hadn't taken on a managerial or coaching role with either England or his former club, Leicester, because of the niggling worry that if he were a flop, it would tarnish that legacy. After all, it was the lot of several men in the England team that won football's World Cup to be remembered as great players but miserably unsuccessful managers, Bobby Moore among them.

"Yeah," said Johnson, "but when people say that I got out at the right time as a player, they're missing the point. I wasn't afraid to play in an unsuccessful team, and I'm not afraid of coaching one. If I want to get into it, I will do. But people love the mythology of sport. They like to think their sporting heroes are special. We're not. A load of us played cricket the other week and there were people saying, 'God, you're normal, aren't you?'"

He was being modest, or disingenuous, or perhaps simply deluding himself. There is nothing normal about Martin Johnson, from his size to his ferocious desire to win. When I asked him that day what it was away from the rugby field that gave him the same fulfilment, he replied, more presciently than maybe either of us knew at the time, "I haven't really found it yet." Well, he has now.

A life in brief

Born: Martin Osborne Johnson, 9 March 1970, Solihull, West Midlands.

Family: The second of three brothers, Johnson's younger brother Will is also a professional rugby player. He is married with two children.

Education: While studying at Robert Smyth School in Leicestershire, Johnson was selected to play England 18 Group rugby in 1987.

Career: Johnson made his Leicester Tigers debut in 1989 before spending the next two summers in New Zealand. He made his England debut against France in 1993. He captained Leicester 1997-2005 and England 1999-2004, including leading the team to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup and winning 84 caps. Retired from playing in 2005 and made manager of the England squad in 2008.

He says: "When I played you could simply feel what was happening in a game. It's not that simple in the grandstands."

They say: "When Johnno took over, I said that you had to give him time before you could see what was happening because quick fixes aren't part of his makeup." Jonny Wilkinson

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