Rugby Union: Johnson's strong silent partner

Paul Trow unveils the secret ingredient of the Leicester marathon
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The Independent Online
Appearances are deceptive but Ernie Wise and Matt Poole have a lot in common. The one with the short, fat, hairy legs built a career in comedy as straight man to the inimitable Eric Morecambe. And Poole, although anything but short, has also spent most of his rugby life in harness with an equally accomplished figure - Martin Johnson.

The newly-anointed Lions captain's timing, both in the line-out and the loose, are indeed worthy of the late, great Morecambe. But his standing in the game also owes much to a durable second-row union at Welford Road, which is now nearly nine seasons old.

While Johnson has teamed up with the likes of Martin Bayfield, Nigel Redman, Garath Archer and Simon Shaw during his illustrious international career, the identity of the man-mountain with whom he most regularly shoulders arms is almost a trade secret.

However, the 6ft 7in, 18st Poole, who made his first-team debut for Leicester almost a decade ago, is not remotely resentful about the acclaim which is heaped on his long-standing partner with almost indecent frequency by colleagues, opponents and media alike.

"Martin is a good personal friend of mine and he's certainly the best second row I've played with or against," said Poole, who at 28 is a year older than Johnson. "I can think of no better candidate to lead the British Lions in South Africa this summer. He reads the game as well as anyone and I don't think that his lack of captaincy experience is going to detract from his ability to do the job out there. He is one of the few automatic Test selections and if he is used as a standard bearer for the rest of the team, then making him captain was an easy decision."

Poole himself once aspired to scale similar heights, and he has been on two England tours - to Argentina in 1990 and South Africa four years later. But, in his cheerful, honest Midlands accent, he readily admits: "I managed to make a complete mess of both of those opportunities. Something fairly remarkable has got to happen now for me to get back into the frame, but if I keep playing well for my club, and that's all you can ever set out to do, then who knows?"

Poole is now several notches down the current pecking order for England second rows, but the selection of Bath's long-serving lock Martin Haag, nearly four years his senior, for the forthcoming tour of Argentina demonstrates that time may still be on his side. "Paul Ackford was older than me when he made his England debut and look at what he achieved in his international career," Poole said.

More immediately, though, Poole's thoughts are focused on Saturday's Pilkington Cup final against Sale. "For Leicester supporters, going to Twickenham is always the big day out of their season. Our fans can fill the stadium three times over and obviously we need to make amends for last year's disappointment."

That last-minute defeat by Bath, the direct result of a controversial penalty try, still rankles, but Poole believes that Leicester have come a long way since then, notwithstanding their recent shaky form. "We ran out of steam after beating Wasps in March, probably through fatigue, because we found ourselves playing both mid-week and at weekends. But we should still have won some of those games we lost."

Strangely, Poole saw yesterday's 20-20 Courage League One draw with Sale as possibly the more important fixture than the Cup final. "Basically that result has earned us fourth place and a passport into Europe next season. It is something the players desperately wanted. We got to the final against Brive this year though unfortunately we were well beaten on the day by a superb side about whom we knew very little beforehand. We know that European competition is very much the future for the game in England.

"Three weeks ago we were pushing for the title, and yet in the end we had to draw our very last game to get into Europe. It's obviously commercially important that we have European rugby here next season but money is not the issue. The players want to better themselves and need the extra ambition that the European Cup provides."

Ambition, as far as Poole is concerned, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand he wants to make the most of the remaining two years of his part- time contract with Leicester ; on the other he is already well established in his family office-fittings business, and also runs a computer company of his own.

When first-team rugby leaves him behind, Poole could not contemplate life in the junior ranks, though he would welcome further involvement with Leicester after retirement.

In some respects this season has been a mixed bag of uncertainty for him, especially after spending 11 weeks out with knee injuries. But he has also had the privilege of working with Leicester's Australian coach Bob Dwyer, the mastermind of his country's 1991 World Cup victory. "Bob has had a great impact on us even though it took him a little while to make his presence felt. He is a great coach and there's no doubt that this Leicester team is the best I've ever played in."

Admiring Dwyer is one thing, but when it comes to challenging for English rugby's Big Urn, then look out for Leicester's engine-room double act with its very own Little Ern.

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