A true rock for the hard place

In Martin Johnson, the Lions have turned to an old-fashioned leader by example. Andrew Baker reports
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The Independent Online
It was a funny way to announce the appointment of a new captain of the Lions. None of the solemnity and grandeur of the East India Club. Just a list headed "Forwards" flicked on to the screens of satellite television viewers, and there at the bottom the name "M Johnson", and next to it, very discreetly, "(c)". Several minutes later, Ray Williams, the Chairman of the Four Home Unions Committee, formally announced the "great honour", but thanks to an over-zealous Sky graphic compiler, everyone now knew what the rugby media had been suggesting for weeks: Martin Johnson would lead the Lions on tour in South Africa.

Another peculiar aspect of the announcement was that Johnson wasn't actually present in the boardroom at Sky's headquarters in a west London suburb. Williams, Fran Cotton, the manager and chairman of selectors, Ian McGeechan, the coach, and even Jason Leonard, who had been a rival for the post, were there facing the expectant press. But the new captain was in Leicester, whence his televised image loomed, beetle-browed and adamantine, on a giant screen above and behind Cotton and Co.

The video link persisted after the satellite channel had ceased broadcasting, so that Johnson and the other Leicester players selected for the Lions tour to South Africa could answer further questions: we could see them, sitting in a semi-circle around a pile of tour kit and a soft-toy lion. But they couldn't see us.

What the Candid Camera revealed was a great reluctance on the part of Johnson to hog the limelight. All the questions, bar one, were addressed to him. Yet time and again he attempted to pass the single microphone back to one of the other players, as if unwilling to believe that the next enquiry could possibly be directed at him. "Press and media attention comes with the job, I think," he said at one point. "So you just have to get on with it and make sure that you enjoy it."

Get on with it he certainly will - it is his way. Whether or not Johnson will enjoy the inevitable media attention that goes with such a prestigious appointment, or indeed prove an eloquent spokesman for his squad, has been a subject of some debate among observers of the rugby scene.

But it is actually completely irrelevant. Cotton, a no-nonsense operator himself, did not appoint Johnson to the captaincy for his diplomatic skills, which are limited to say the least. He is there as the most old- fashioned - and best - kind of captain: one who leads by example.

"That is Johno's main attribute, without a doubt," said Will Greenwood, the Leicester centre who is the only uncapped player in the Lions squad. Greenwood has been impressed by Johnson on the occasions this season where he has taken over the Leicester captaincy. "He's a cajoler. Definitely a cajoler. You get captains all over the place who rant and rave and go on about commitment, but when they get out on the park they hide behind the pack. That's not Johno's way - he really puts his body and soul on the line. Whatever he tells us to do, we know he wouldn't suggest it unless he was prepared to do it himself. That is how he inspires." There is one other important part of Johnson's character, according to Greenwood. "He is also a very, very bad loser."

You would not want to share a dressing-room with an unhappy Johnson - all 6ft 7in and 18st 2lb of him. His physical presence has always struck awe into both team-mates and opponents, as Clive Bickley, who taught him as a teenager at Robert Smythe Upper School in Harborough, near Leicester, recalled. "He had no trouble getting respect from the other boys as captain," Bickley said. "He was such a big lad that they all looked up to him anyway. He stood head and shoulders above everyone else. But he wasn't a stringbean, he was a well-built lad. Even now that he's 18 stone plus, none of it is flab." The young Johnson played soccer as well as rugby, and was captain of the school's under-15 XI as "a big, gangling centre-back." But all the while he was honing his rugby skills with the junior sides of the nearby Wigston Rugby Club, progressing into the Leicester Youth Team.

For all his achievements on the sports field, Johnson remained modest, no bragger. "He was a very quiet, unassuming sort, really a very pleasant lad," Bickley said. "To be truthful, you would never have thought that he would end up having such a great honour bestowed upon him."

Bickley is not alone in being surprised at Johnson's elevation. Critics have pointed out his lack of experience as a captain, even at club level, and questioned the wisdom of having a captain in the second row. History refutes the latter point - Willie John McBride led the victorious Lions in South Africa in 1974 - and last week Johnson addressed the question of inexperience. "There are guys in the squad who have captained their countries," he said. "Ieuan Evans, Rob Wainwright and Jason Leonard, so I'll rely on their advice and their experience. On the pitch there will be enough talented players to make decisions - especially in the back row and at half-back."

Fran Cotton, perhaps reassured by the thought that under recent rule changes he can always issue a change of plans to the team via a substitute, is confident that Johnson is the right man for the job. "He's got a very good dressing-room manner, and is totally respected by the players," Cotton said. "We felt it was important to have someone in the heat of the battle in the forwards, and a man of sufficient stature that the Springboks would also be totally respectful to."

With a physically demanding tour-plan, described by McGeechan as the equivalent of "ten Five Nations matches and three World Cup Finals", it is perhaps as well that the players' admiration for their captain extends beyond the pitch to the training field. "His attitude to training is immense," Will Greenwood testified. "Even when he's been shot at and told to rest, he's still up for it. Last week, even though he was on the bench for the next game at Orrell, he heard there was a game of touch rugby on the go in the warm-up and he said, 'I'm going to go out and do that.' He's fully committed. Sometimes we might call him a street thug but it's more accurate to call him an enforcer."

Johnson can be difficult to get to know: the stony expression is not reserved for the cameras. But once his trust is earned, friends and team- mates say that he can be good company, if a little demanding. "At Leicester he's our Sports Trivia man," Greenwood said. "Our very own Statto. He's constantly wanting to know who played in the 1973 Leeds Cup final side and stuff like that." But he is not entirely sports focused, and according to Greenwood, can turn on the banter in company. "All the wives and girlfriends think he's great: a true gent."

In many ways Johnson is an old-fashioned figure, quite the opposite of the groomed, scripted, marketed sportsman. He resembles a fictional British hero of another age, Bulldog Drummond, described by his creator, "Sapper", thus: "He lives clean, loves sport, and fights hard". For Johnson, the adventure will be real.

Leaders among Lions: How the 13 post-war captains have fared By Paul Trow

1950: New Zealand/Australia

Dr K D Mullen (Ireland)

Tests: Lions 0 New Zealand 3

Lions 2 Australia 0

The hooker Karl Mullen can lay claim to being his country's most successful captain, having led Ireland to their only Grand Slam in 1948 and the Triple Crown a year later. At the time of the first Lions tour after the Second World War, though, home-union rugby was still finding its feet and the All Blacks won the Test series.

1955: South Africa

R H Thompson (Ireland)

Tests: Lions 2 South Africa 2

Robin Thompson, a lock who subsequently became a rugby league player with Warrington, enjoyed a hero's welcome when he returned from the 1955 Lions tour. The Test record shows that the Lions' two victories were achieved by one and three points while the margin of both Springbok wins was much higher.

1959: New Zealand/Australia

A R Dawson (Ireland)

Tests: Lions 1 New Zealand 3

Lions 2 Australia 0

Ronnie Dawson, a competitive hooker who went on to become one of the game's top administrators, could claim to have been unlucky when his men lost their first two Tests 18-17 and 11-8. The third Test yielded a much more decisive victory for the All Blacks, but the Lions did well to come back and win the final international 9-6.

1962: South Africa

A R Smith (Scotland)

Tests: Lions 0 South Africa 3

Arthur Smith, a right-wing, was ending his eight-year international career, and the series began promisingly for a squad of which much was expected with a 3-3 draw in Johannesburg. But after a 3-0 defeat in the second Test their form fell away, culminating in a 34-14 thrashing in Bloemfontein.

1966: New Zealand/Australia

M J Campbell-Lamerton (Scotland)

Tests: Lions 0 New Zealand 4

Lions 2 Australia 0

One of the least successful Lions parties ever, despite the presence for the first time of a coach, the former Welsh international John Robins. Mike Campbell-Lamerton, an Army officer and lock forward, was captain even though he was generally considered not to be worth his place. The difference in class between the teams was almost embarrassing.

1968: South Africa

T J Kiernan (Ireland)

Tests: Lions 0 South Africa 3

Tom Kiernan's squad had considerable strength in depth, which was demonstrated by the fact that they lost only one of their 16 other fixtures. But the Test series, after a narrow defeat and 6-6 draw, slipped disappointingly away in the final two matches.

1971: New Zealand/Australia

S J Dawes (Wales)

Tests: Lions 2 New Zealand 1

This truly heroic party secured victory in the series with a 14-14 draw in the final Test. The squad was not as strong on paper as in 1974 or 1977, but the Welsh centre John Dawes, an inspirational leader, was fortunate to have players such as Gareth Edwards, Barry John and Mervyn Davies in key positions.

1974: South Africa

W J McBride (Ireland)

Tests: Lions 3 South Africa 0

Possibly the greatest party, captained by one of the game's greatest players, the Irish lock Willie John McBride, who was making his fifth Lions tour. The Lions had not won a series in South Africa since 1896, but McBride's men swept all before them, winning 21 of their 22 matches and drawing only the final Test.

1977: New Zealand/Fiji

P Bennett (Wales)

Tests: Lions 1 New Zealand 3

Following two successful Lions tours in 1971 and 1974, the Southern Hemisphere was taking British rugby seriously again, especially with the mercurial Welsh fly-half Phil Bennett at the helm. The squad bore comparison with the two previous parties but the series was eventually lost by one point - in the final Test.

1980: South Africa

W B Beaumont (England)

Tests: Lions 1 South Africa 3

After leading England to their first Grand Slam in 23 years, the Lancastrian lock was the automatic choice as captain. Overall, the tour was a disappointment although the Tests were closely contested. Beaumont kept morale high and his reward came with victory in the final Test.

1983: New Zealand

C F Fitzgerald (Ireland)

Tests: Lions 0 New Zealand 4

Ciaran Fitzgerald, an Irish Army captain, took charge of the Lions after leading Ireland to the Five Nations' Championship. Despite his leadership qualities, Fitzgerald was out of his depth as a player and the Test team were outgunned in too many positions. Fitzgerald's selection also deprived England's world-class hooker Peter Wheeler of a place in the squad.

1989: Australia

F Calder (Scotland)

Tests: Lions 2 Australia 1

One of the more successful Lions squads which was stylishly captained by the amiable Scottish flanker Finlay Calder and brilliantly coached by his countryman Ian McGeechan. Following their 1984 Grand Slam tour of the British Isles, Australia had become an outstanding team and subsequently underlined their quality by winning the 1991 World Cup.

1993: New Zealand

A G Hastings (Scotland)

Tests: Lions 1 New Zealand 2

Hastings, Scotland's most capped full-back, was a popular choice as Lions captain and characteristically led by example against a strong All Blacks line-up. Given the limitations of the tour party, which was again coached by McGeechan, Hastings' Lions did well to win the second Test 20-7 in Wellington and take the series to a decider.