Farewell Captain Invincible with perfect timing

The revelation of the worst-kept secret in rugby was at least given the kudos of a thoroughly explosive prelude. Martin Johnson, England's World Cup winning captain and a colossus of the game, announced his retirement from international rugby immediately following a thumping 49-7 victory for Leicester over Ulster in the Heineken Cup.

With an admirable sense of timing, redolent of the success that attended an unparalleled career of 84 England caps and a unique two Lions tours as skipper, Johnson galloped over for Leicester's fifth and final try in a season-rescuing victory for the Tigers.

Then, facing a media scrum in a bar beneath Leicester's main stand, the 33-year-old said: "You never want to not play for England, and at 50 or 60, sitting in a chair, you'll want to be out there. But you have to be realistic and it was time to go. It has been a privilege to play for England, alongside some great players and with a great coaching staff. It has, of course, been a massive honour to captain my country... there have been many highlights."

Chief among these was the World Cup final victory over Australia last November, which was soon followed by speculation that Johnson would call it a day. The line of succession is unclear, and yesterday Sir Clive Woodward, the England head coach, had thoughts only of the man he first named captain for a World Cup qualifier against Holland in November 1998.

"Martin and I spoke earlier this month about his decision," said Woodward. "I would have liked him to captain England in our defence of the Grand Slam but I fully support his decision. He stands down having achieved everything there is to achieve as an England player and I hope he will be involved in some other capacity in the international team in the future."

In the present, Johnson, recently made a CBE, will continue playing for Leicester. "I've not really thought about anything past that," he said, having hinted that he made his decision before Woodward's call for Six Nations participants to make themselves available for the summer tour to New Zealand and Australia.

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