Johnson unravels the French mystery: Rugby Union

Paul Trow talks to the English lock who is tipped to be the Lions captain
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The Independent Online
Eeven in a professional era when everything is meant to have an explanation, there is sometimes no complete answer to the question: "How did it happen?"

The disbelief at England's slide to defeat by France from a seemingly impregnable position last weekend has engendered a grim determination to put the record straight on Saturday against Wales in Cardiff where the Triple Crown, at least, is up for grabs.

But as for the day they went on French leave, the England camp appear to have adopted the pragmatic angler's philosophy about the one that got away.

Martin Johnson, for one, certainly has. "When you're 14 points up with 20 minutes to go, you shouldn't lose," said the giant Leicester lock." It was not a pleasant experience to be in the first England team beaten by France at Twickenham for 10 years. If you lose a game like that, obviously you are disappointed and there's not a lot people can do or say to lift you afterwards. But it's not the end of the world and you've got to get on with life. It definitely helped me that I had training with Leicester the following day for our Courage game with Sale on Tuesday."

That midweek victory kept Leicester on course for the League and Cup double in a season which has already seen them reach the European Cup final - an occasion which resulted in another French defeat for Johnson.

"Brive played very well that day and deserved to beat us even though we didn't play badly. But we should have won the game with France. In the first half we kept the ball in hand and attacked well, but we kicked too much in the second half when we had the wind with us.

"Once they got some momentum going they were back in it. For 10 minutes after half-time we absorbed a lot of pressure but we came through that well. We'd weathered the storm and then lost concentration for a second or two to let them in for their first try.

"It all started when we lost a key line-out. After that we were defending constantly - it's always more tiring to defend than attack. It was a mixture of loss of concentration and loss of intensity but our tactics didn't help.

"Benazzi and Miorin going off didn't weaken their line-out. Pelous, their No 8, is really a second row and they hadn't been throwing to Benazzi anyway."

Despite the French setbacks, Johnson, who is 27 today, has thrived on European competition. "It's made our season at Leicester. We showed guts to win two tough away games against Leinster and Pau, and we haven't looked back since. Now we are in the Pilkington Cup semi-finals and have a chance in the League."

Johnson has also dabbled in captaincy. "I've led the side a few times in Dean Richards's absence. It can distract you from your own game. Initially I said too much instead of letting people get on with it. Ideally, you keep your input to a minimum. But at lock you don't see a lot of what is going on anyway and you have to rely on your half-backs to run the game."

With Bill Beaumont and Willie-John McBride leading the last two Lions trips to South Africa, the second row is by no means out of bounds for captaincy at the highest level. And as Johnson is one of few players who, barring injury, can be sure of a Test place, he has emerged as a possible captain for this summer's tour.

"There aren't too many obvious candidates. It's a pretty open race, but anyone who is offered the opportunity must take it," said Johnson, who made two Test appearances for the 1993 Lions in New Zealand. "It will be a great tour, as it's the Lions' first there for 17 years."

Johnson has a personal score to settle with South Africa. His two previous visits with England, in 1994 when he came home early with concussion and the World Cup the following summer, were far from satisfactory.

But, more immediately, his mind is focused on Cardiff where he will win his 30th England cap. "They'll certainly be up for it down there. We can expect a hectic game. Both sides have injuries - after such a busy season, a lot of players are carrying knocks. It will be a day for discipline and concentration... and passion."