Unheralded Johnson underlines his worth as Great Britain take aim at the Australians

Bradford's utility man tells Dave Hadfield how a fresh start helped him fight back after losing his hunger for the game
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The Independent Online

And yet, in defeat at Loftus Road last week, it was Johnson who three times found holes in the New Zealand defence, making him the first British forward since 1910 to score a Test hat-trick.

"I was chuffed to bits, because not many players score a hat-trick, but you just want the team to win." That's Johnson for you - a self-effacing team man, but one with a growing sense of his own worth.

When he was an emerging player in his home-town of Wigan, that club's chairman, Maurice Lindsay, rated him as the best prospect around, but theorised that he sometimes went unnoticed because he had a boring name.

Despite that handicap - and more than his share of injuries - Johnson was on his way to making his name as a specialist centre, although he played on the wing for Great Britain as long ago as 2001.

In 2003, however, his world was turned on its head when his younger brother, Craig, was killed in a car crash, along with Shaun Edwards' brother, Billy Joe.

He was deeply affected by that tragedy. "I didn't want to play any more. Rugby was just a game and I lost interest in it. I had a difficult year," he says with some understatement.

"The club didn't really help me much that last year and, at the end of it, they were having some trouble with the salary cap and they asked me if I would leave."

Johnson believes now that a fresh start, with different people was the best thing that could have happened to him. His first season at Bradford saw him play well enough to make last year's Tri-Nations squad, even though a shoulder injury picked up in the ill-fated final kept him out for much of this campaign.

His form in the latter stages, primarily as a second-rower, put him back in Great Britain's squad, although there were eyebrows raised when he was named to start in that role at Loftus Road. Along with Stuart Fielden and Keiron Cunningham, though, he was Britain's success on the night. All three of his tries came from passes delivered by Cunningham - one team-mate who was not surprised by his impact.

"He just runs good lines and angles and the way I play suits people who understand how to do that," says the St Helens hooker.

"For me, he's world-class. He's not one of the big names, but he's always there when you need him."

For Johnson, it was a partnership which clicked immediately. "I've not played with him much before, but he's a great player to run off. Plenty of tries come off Keiron," he says.

By the end of the game, Johnson was playing a very different role, filling in on the wing for the unfortunate Brian Carney.

Although he now thinks of himself as a centre or second-row, he says he has "no real preference. You've just got to adapt."

That ability to adapt has now taken him into double figures for Great Britain caps. "Whenever a team comes out, people say 'Should he be in there?' but there have been a few injuries which have disrupted my international career, otherwise I'd have far more caps than I've got."

Another performance like last Saturday's can only underline his right to be there, but Johnson knows that it is the result, rather than any individual feat, that is the thing at Wigan.

"I thought our attacking was pretty good at QPR. It was our defence that let us down," he says, acknowledging that it is now likely to take two victories over Australia - starting today - to earn a place in the final. It is a long time since Great Britain managed two in a row against that opposition.

"It's a big ask, but that day's going to come." Paul Johnson might often be disregarded when outsiders draw up their ideal Great Britain sides, but he wants to be there when it does.

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