Rugby Union: Johnson pays for past sins

Richmond 15 Leicester 13
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THE WAY Martin Johnson's rugby career is going it may well pay the England coach, Clive Woodward, to name the Leicester lock on the bench for Saturday's Five Nations match against Ireland in Dublin.

He was sent to the sin-bin against Richmond for what was described as a "professional foul", and that came just a week after the kerfuffle over his alleged stamp on Scotland centre John Leslie. And it has to be said, in both cases, that Johnson appeared to be a man more sinned against than sinning.

This was not the hot-headed impetuosity which had seen him punch All Black captain Justin Marshall last season, nor was it those moments of madness against Argentina or Wales a couple of years ago when Johnson's thoughtless behaviour cost England a try each time.

But of course, these things are remembered, and not just by the media.

Increasingly Johnson resembles a tragic Lear-like figure; he is rapidly becoming a victim of his own circumstances and a focal point for media and opposition alike.

John Kingston, Richmond's director of rugby, admitted after his side had clung on for their Tetley's Bitter Cup quarter- final victory over Leicester: "It would be fair to say that we asked our No 2 [hooker Barry Williams] to focus on their No 2 [Richard Cockerill] and our No 4 [Craig Quinnell] to focus on their No 4 [Johnson]."

With that in mind it would be naive of anyone to imagine that Ireland would not be aware of the fact that Johnson's every move will be under the all intrusive scrutiny of the television cameras and the public at large when the two sides meet, not to mention that of the referee. The Irish too are likely to "focus" on the lock and it is highly unlikely that his imposing 6ft 6in, 18st presence will go unnoticed by the match officials.

There will therefore be pressure on the man and he will have to appear whiter than white in Dublin.

However, in his defence, the Leicester manager, Dean Richards, insisted: "I think Johnno has been disciplined this year. I think there's far worse players out there playing international and club rugby, than Martin Johnson. I think because the guy was the Lions captain, because he plays for England, that he is persecuted."

That may be going it a bit, but Johnson certainly has a higher profile than most. But Richards denied that referees looked for the lock forward.

He was definitely spotted at the Madejski Stadium, although not as the result of being targeted by Richmond, but because the referee, Steve Lander, spotted him stepping offside to tap the ball out of scrum-half Agustin Pichot's hands, to prevent a pass being made and he was shown the white card.

"I thought a white card was a bit harsh," said Richards afterwards. "And it certainly had an effect on the match."

Kingston disagreed. "As soon as Martin Johnson did what he did to Pichot he had to go into the sin-bin," declared Kingston. "It was cynical."

And white was apparently the order of the day because Quinnell, too, went into the bin for punching. Except that television replays revealed that the Wales international had not thrown a punch in that particular fracas.

The 10 minutes that Johnson was off the field were all Richmond needed to seal victory and reach the semi-final stage of the Cup for the first time.

Mind you it needed some desperate defending by Richmond to keep out the snarling Tigers in a thrilling second half. However, the Tigers failed to capitalise on Quinnell's enforced absence.

Richmond: Tries Clarke, Williams; Conversion Va'a; Penalty Va'a. Leicester: Tries Back, Corry; Penalty Stimpson.

Richmond: M Pini; N Walne, J Wright, M Dixon, S Brown; E Va'a, A Pichot; D McFarland, B Williams, D Crompton, C Quinnell, C Gillies, R Hutton, B Clarke (capt), A Vander.

Leicester: T Stimpson; L Lloyd (N Ezulike, 10), C Joiner, J Stuart, D Lougheed; P Howard, J Hamilton; G Rowntree (D Jelley, 61), R Cockerill (D West, 69), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F van Heerden, L Moody (P Gustard, 58), M Corry, N Back.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).