Family tragedy overshadows Johnson's Grand Final

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The Independent Online

No player in Saturday's Super League Grand Final has had to overcome the hurdles that Paul Johnson has faced this season. The frustrations of injuries and falling in and out of favour have been put in perspective by a personal tragedy from which he is still recovering.

Early this season his younger brother, Craig, and Billy-Joe Edwards, the brother of the former Wigan player Shaun, were killed in a car crash and Johnson has only just started to come to terms with the loss.

"I've still not sorted my head out," he says. "I've been waking up in the morning and I've not been ready to think about rugby, let alone playing it. It's only in the last six or seven weeks that I've started to cope with it."

The loss of a brother who was himself a promising player in Wigan's Academy team knocked the stuffing out of Johnson, who still fills up with emotion when he talks about him. That makes it all the more remarkable that he has once more become an important part of the first team on their march to this weekend's meeting with the Bradford Bulls.

Usually a centre, although he has played on the wing for Great Britain, he has been re-invented as a back-row forward who has frequently made an impact coming off the bench.

"We had so many injuries early in the season that you had to fill in where you were needed," he says. "I was playing on the wing, I played a bit at stand-off and I packed down in the front row for 20 minutes at Widnes. I still see myself as a centre but I'll play anywhere they want me to."

The use of Johnson as a rotation player has made Wigan a more mobile and flexible team under Mike Gregory and he is also one of the players with an added incentive for wanting to win at Old Trafford.

"The last time we were here, we played Bradford and lost, and it was one of the worst feelings - not just to be beaten but to be humiliated," Johnson says. "We've not talked a lot about it but the lads who were in that team know the score."

One reason Johnson believes that Wigan are better equipped than two years ago is the form of Brian Carney, whom Johnson replaced after just 12 minutes of the 2001 Grand Final.

Carney has made an art-form of scoring miracle tries during the run to this year's showpiece, including two at Leeds in the final eliminator last Friday. In his new role in the pack, Johnson has a fresh appreciation of how valuable that sort of strike-power is.

"There's nothing better than when you're in the forwards and it's a real hard slog and someone can go half the length of the field and score," he says. "Brian was fantastic last week. Those were probably the two tries of the season.

"I know Brian's got 2001 on his mind as well. He doesn't want to be in that same position again. We know we've got to take it to Bradford. They're a big team, very direct, and they will think they can challenge us in the forwards but that's where we've grown as a team."

Johnson is not the sort to make fancy speeches about his special reasons for wanting a Grand Final ring, but his family's sufferings this season have given him an extra, steely resolve and there is a sense that Craig will be there at his shoulder.

"I just want to play the game and I'll be trying to treat it the same way as every game," he says. "But, yes, he'll be there."