Indomitable Johnson king of the jungle

Chris Hewett profiles the Lions captain who always gives as good as he gets
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Henry Kissinger he is not. If the 1997 Lions were looking for a natural diplomat to captain the ship through the volatile waters of South Africa this summer - an urbane public relations specialist with a chameleon-like ability to switch from statesmanlike speeches to cocktail party small talk - they could not have done worse than bestow the honour on Martin Osborne Johnson.

The man who emerged from New Zealand's King Country in 1991 to become king of the jungle six years later is no one's idea of a suave, sophisticated lounge lizard lavishly equipped with the gift of the gab. But then Fran Cotton, manager of the first professional party in Lions history, was never much interested in appearances. What he wanted was a rough, tough, teak-hard handful, an 18-stone frame so jam-packed with smouldering strop that even the Springboks, self-appointed enforcers of the rugby-playing world, would think twice before taking liberties. That is precisely what Cotton has in Johnson.

In so far as the captain spoke at all yesterday - and you can be very sure that he is much happier delivering prime possession from the front of a line-out than anything resembling the Gettysburg Address - he said all the right things. No, he did not think it would be a particularly violent tour. Yes, it would be bloody rough all the same. No, the Lions would not be looking to win the series through brawn rather than brain. But, yes, his players would be expected to stand up for themselves.

Johnson has first-hand experience of the discomforts of life down Johannesburg way. Three years ago Johan le Roux, a fully paid up member of the Springbok cheap shot society, clouted the Leicester lock during an England tour game with Transvaal and by the time he woke up, Simon Shaw had been summoned as his replacement.

Since then, Johnson has dished it out with the best of them. He has suffered the odd rough ride - German Llanes had him looking over his shoulder during the England-Argentina Test at Twickenham in December and less than a month later he was overshadowed by the clever, calculating second rows of Brive in the final of the Heineken Cup. But, as a rule, he rarely finishes second to anyone.

Indeed, he has been unmatched in his prowess as a primary ball-winner since he announced his presence to a dumbstruck Bath pack in a Pilkington Cup match in 1990. Leicester's unexpected victory was constructed on the broad back of a 20-year-old rookie who made the jump from unknown to potential world-beater in the space of 80 remarkable minutes.

Yet those in the know had identified Johnson as an uncut diamond some years earlier. Born in Solihull in March 1970, he played his early rugby with Wigston and, on joining Leicester still in his teens, he quickly caught the eye of selectors at national schools and colts levels.

Then came one of three big breaks that transformed his career, an 18- month spell with College Old Boys in King Country. One of the grizzled Kiwis who spotted something special in the feisty young newcomer was the grizzliest of them all - Colin Meads, All Black legend and King Country folk hero. No one ever argued with Meads during his dozen years as a Test forward and his glowing opinion of Johnson persuaded the New Zealand Colts' selectors to pick him for an international against Australia. Among his team-mates that day were Va'aiga Tuigamala, Blair Larsen and John Timu and had he taken up an offer to stay in the north island, he would surely have followed that trio into the ranks of the Silver Fern.

England was home, though, and by the time he returned he was already approaching finished article status. The remaining breaks came quickly. An injury to Wade Dooley earned him a first cap against France in 1993, and when Dooley suffered a family bereavement in the early stages of the Lions' tour of New Zealand later that year, he played in the last two Tests as though to the manner born.

Yes, he is reserved, almost taciturn, in public. But, as Cotton said yesterday, Johnson has the "complete and total respect" of those who play alongside him, whether for Leicester or England. And when the manager added that "the thought of Johnson knocking on the dressing-room door in the minutes before a Test match will concentrate the Springboks' minds wonderfully," the rationale behind the appointment was suddenly crystal clear.

Johnson may not be a natural leader in the mould of Bill Beaumont, still less a clever psychologist like John Dawes. His flashes of temper cost England tries against both Argentina and Wales this season. But, for all that, he is some player: a big man with a big job on his hands.