Martin Johnson: 'I've no time for Little England philosophy'

The England manager looks forward to a World Cup in the land where he cut his teeth, but never mind the foreign contingent – all that matters is winning. Hugh Godwin meets Martin Johnson

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The arguments of the Little Englanders who see depravity and deviancy in every foreign-born member of the national rugby squad meet a substantial obstacle in the form of Martin Johnson, the team manager. This very big Englander – arguably the definitive figure in the game's founding country during the past two decades – wore the all black of New Zealand when he was a young man.

He cloaked himself in the same flag of convenience waved now by Manu Tuilagi, Thomas Waldrom and the others of overseas provenance in the current England squad, and he made the most of it, earning knowledge and respect and, along the way, the love of his life. If Johnson draws on that background to win this autumn's World Cup in the land where he spent a chunk of his formative years, he will lose no sleep over it.

"I didn't play less hard for New Zealand Under-21s than for anyone else," says Johnson, whose hardness in England's second-row was a bywordthroughout a 92-Test career culminating in the World Cup win of 2003 before he became manager three years ago. In his autobiography he wrote that he would have been "honoured and proud" to have played for the All Blacks proper if he had stayed in New Zealand beyond the 18 months he was there as a 19- and 20-year-old.

The All Blacks certainly had that in mind for the fresh-faced beanpole from Solihull. "Not that you can choose those things," Johnson points out when we meet during a break in training for his 45-man squad, "any more than I knew I would go on to play for England when I decided to come home. People don't understand, talking about our guys born abroad. They've got to come in and prove themselves like anyone else.

"If we think they're the right characters and the right people then they can play. I played with plenty of guys in an England shirt who didn't quite cut it. I played with other blokes born in Nigeria or South Africa and some of them were great. It's what you do and who you are, not particularly where you're born."

The rules of qualifying through a grandparent or three years' residency are certainly worthy of debate, not least before a World Cup that kicks off in September with the already cash- and player-rich England taking on the impoverished likes of Romania and Georgia. Yet to chat with Johnson about New Zealand is to be transported by his affectionate, finger-jabbing impression of the "grumpy" colossus that was Colin "Pinetree" Meads to the other-worldly homeliness of the heart of the North Island.

Johnson played there for King Country, in the same position and for the same province as the great Meads – and it was Meads, a pillar of New Zealand life, never mind rugby, who advocated Johnson wearing the black jersey with the coveted silver fern above the words "NZ Colts". Johnson discovered sheep-shearing and pig-hunting and possum-shooting and Maori hangi barbecues – andhe met Kay, later his wife and themother to their two, presumably dual-qualified children. They still have a holiday home in the Bay of Plenty, near his mother-in-law's house.

"By 1990, I'd played 20-odd times for King Country and only twice for the [Leicester] Tigers," Johnson recalls. "At that age you go with the flow." But Kay was happy to explore and Johnson wanted to come home, and soon he had an England cap to his name and was on his way to more than 300 matches for Leicester.

The open game has encouraged players to find contracts and caps elsewhere, not that an England manager is obliged to pick them, of course. Johnson's powers of selection are about to be tested for the first time in a World Cup. "Everyone wants to know what the end point is: can you win?" he says. "Well, I've been home playing club rugby when a World Cup final was on [in 1999, when he and England were knocked out in a quarter-final in Paris] and you can't win doing that.

"On day one when we came into this camp, I said to the boys, 'If you're thinking about getting in the squad and playing in the August matches and going to a World Cup, it starts not even with the first day but the first rep in the gym'. You live in the moment and take care of what's in front of you right now. If you start thinking about what happens at the end, you'll be in a lot of trouble."

He reels off a list of close-run World Cup matches to emphasise the hard-nosed skill he needs to develop in an up-and-down team who have friendlies with Wales, twice, and Ireland in the next four weeks. The 45 players will be cut to 30 on 22 August, five days before something close to the first-choice XV play in Dublin; the aim is to be battle-ready a mere two weeks before a tough World Cup opener with Argentina in Dunedin.

Yes, Johnson readily concedes, the world's No 1 ranked team he captained to victory in Australia in 2003 were "there to win it". The point was it went without saying. The current lot are ranked fifth, a whisker behind the Irish, even though England hold the Six Nations' Championship for the first time since 2003.

So what would Johnson regard as an acceptable outcome? "You've got to be realistic," he says. "An acceptable outcome for us is to improve as a team from what we did in Ireland [the emphatic defeat last March when England were on for a Grand Slam]. If we do that we feel we can wingames of rugby. If you do that you find yourself in the knockout rounds.

"Every piece of winning a World Cup is a simple action in itself. Jonny [Wilkinson]'s drop kick in '03 was a classic example. I've probably got 30 players who can do that, this afternoon, under no pressure. It's different when you're out there in a game. Being able to think clearly and then communicate it and do it as a team – it isn't as easy as it sounds."

Think clearly, eh? The phrase is a reminder of the then England manager Clive Woodward's acronym imbued in the 2003 team: T-CUP: thinking correctly under pressure. Has Johnson sought the help of Woodward since becoming manager?They have shared a PR advisor and Woodward is on the Leicester board.

"I see Clive around," says Johnson. "You get to exchange little bits. But I haven't talked to Clive for a while. I don't ring him as a matter of course or he ring me. I was lucky to be coached by some of the greatest coaches in the last 20 years. John Hart in New Zealand, Ian McGeechan, Jim Telfer, Clive. At Leicester there was Dean [Richards] and John [Wells], and Bob Dwyer for a bit. Everyone has their own ways of doing it. I can't be Clive Woodward, I can't be Andy Robinson, can't be Jim Telfer; I'm Martin Johnson, I'll do it how I do it.

"It's not a secret what people are doing on the field. You can copy exactly what the All Blacks do, though doing it as well as them might be a challenge. It's a question of have you got the skills, have you got the athletes, have you got that emotional bond, of people of the right character. It's not particularly definable or measurable,or from the coaching book."

Johnson was one of five England players in the World XV named after the 2003 win. How many world-class players does he think England have now? "How many world-class players did South Africa have [when they won] in '95?" he asks. "Who's a world-class player? It's all people's opinion. We've got what we've got. We've got lots of guys who are there or certainly have the ability to get there. If they come back off the World Cup having got near their potential, some of them will certainly be there."

Such is the challenge to the likes of Tom Wood, Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley. "The England team versus Wales in the '03 quarter-final was the most experienced ever," says Johnson. "At 10-0 down we didn't look too bloody clever, did we?" No, but they won the match.

Ireland, Scotland and Wales con-tracted their head coaches beyond the World Cup, but Johnson's deal, which runs out in December, will remain untouched until after the competition. Remarkably, his three years' service make him the war-torn RFU's longest-serving high-profile figure in one post. But if he had any part in the former chief executive John Steele's mysterious U-turning on the performance director's role so strongly linked to Woodward earlierthis year, he has kept it to himself.

So why wait on the contract? "I think it's just right," says Johnson, "in the big picture of wrong and right. I don't think I should be having a contract negotiation before a World Cup. I should be concentrating on the World Cup and sorting that out eitherway afterwards.

"Coaches and players understand what life is. We win or we lose, players get picked or they don't, and the managers get sacked."

You can meet the England squad at their Twickenham training session on 9 August. For details, visit

Getting shirty: Johnson left in dark over RFU's black shirts

Martin Johnson was not consulted before the Rugby Football Union and kit manufacturer Nike chose all-black as the colour of England's new change kit, to be worn against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday and at the World Cup in New Zealand.

The choice of an entirely black strip – synonymous with New Zealand since 1905 – has upset the hosts. New Zealand's prime minister, John Key, described England as "wannabe" All Blacks and the great wing Jonah Lomu said it was "disrespecting the legacy of past players".

Although Johnson has distanced himself from the decision, he believes the furore will die down once the action starts. He said: "Once we get out to the World Cup there will be bigger things to worry about. They said they were going to go black, and I was happy with it." Wales have escaped similar ire, even though their change strip is all black with flashes of red. Former captains Lawrence Dallaglio and Sean Fitzpatrick pointed out the irony that the All Blacks' own change shirt is purest English white, though the shorts remain black. Fitzpatrick added: "It's all about a war between adidas [the All Blacks' kit manufacturer] and Nike. The only worry for England will be if their players get distracted by it." A Nike spokesperson said: "We wanted to create an England change kit that was in complete contrast to the 100 per cent white home kit."

Hugh Godwin