Johns wants more than to be the best

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The Independent Online

Midway through the Australian rugby league team's first formal press conference at their base in Leeds this week, a vaguely familiar voice piped up from the back of the room. "Was it a difficult decision," it asked, "choosing Brad Fittler over Andrew Johns to lead the side?" Heads turned to find that the questioner was none other than Andrew Johns.

It was a show-stopping party trick with a serious edge to it. Johns has arrived in this country generally regarded as the world's best player, but that is not enough for him; he would dearly love to be Australia's captain as well.

The position falls vacant when Fittler retires from international rugby league at the end of this short tour and Johns is one of the obvious contenders to succeed him, although he has expressed his own doubts over whether the selectors would opt for someone with his free-wheeling attitude towards life.

Joey, as he is known, is full of the cheerful irreverence typified by his contribution on Wednesday and has been in his fair share of scrapes off the field. So has Fittler, but that has never held him back. "Freddie's a great leader, but, when he steps down, we'll see what happens," he says. "It is a big issue for me, but not one I want to worry about at the moment."

Many would see Johns as an even more natural on-field leader than Fittler. It certainly looked that way during the Australian domestic season, as he guided the Newcastle Knights to the Premiership. When his peers voted for the best player in the game, he won with a landslide.

The Great Britain coach, David Waite, who nursed him through the junior ranks at Newcastle, describes him as "the most influential player in the world today". And yet, under the coaching of Chris Anderson, his grasp on the coveted scrum-half spot in the national team has rarely been better than tenuous. Too often for his own liking, he has been shunted to hooker – as he was during last year's successful World Cup campaign. At the time, he had to make the right diplomatic noises. Now he can tell the truth. "I hate playing hooker," he says. "It's just not my position."

That is why the world's best player does not believe that England has seen the best of him. "On other trips here, my flair's been dulled. Hopefully, now I can show my wares."

Johns has solid reasons for wanting to show Britain what he can do. When his Newcastle contract is over, he would like to follow his brother, Matthew, into the British game. Matthew played for Wigan last season and feedback from him, as well as his own habit of watching two Super League games a week on television in Australia, have given Johns an up-to-date knowledge of the state of the game here.

"Matty's going to fax a few pointers over about players at Wigan like Gary Connolly and Andy Farrell. He holds them in such high regard – especially Farrell. He says he's just a world-class player.

"The top five or six teams here are equal to anything in the NRL. Saints beat Brisbane and Bradford played a fantastic 80 minutes against Wigan in the Grand Final. Playing in England is something I'd love to do in the future. Rugby league is my trade and I suppose I have to get as much out of this body as I can."

Johns, who lists surfing and "losing plenty of money on the horses" as his hobbies, knows that a series in which he dominated as he is capable of doing would also make it hard for his claims to the captaincy to be ignored, even in the face of competition from the likes of Darren Lockyer and Gorden Tallis.

He does not, however, expect that to be easy. For one thing, there is Waite and his inside knowledge of what makes Joey tick. "He brought me along as a kid and he knows my game inside out," he says. "He'll be passing all that information on to the players. But we've got so many good players. The way we look at it is that we've got so many ball-players, if they concentrate too much on one, someone else will hurt them."

Johns will be at the centre of that conundrum for Great Britain, but he still cannot quite resist the temptation to have the occasional nervous glance at his Newcastle team-mate, Danny Buderus – the only hooker in the party. "I hope nothing happens to him," Johns said. The opportunity to prove that he really is the mighty scrum-half Australia sees every week is to precious too lose.

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