Farewell Johnno

Leicester's captain ends his playing career in today's Premiership final against Wasps. The man who led England to World Cup triumph shares 16 years with Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

Martin Osborne Johnson had to have a weakness somewhere, and at the fag end of a career stretching back more than 16 years and 500-plus first-class matches - a career that has rained achievement upon his head in the kind of deluge Noah might have recognised - that weakness can finally be revealed. He is no good with mascots.

Martin Osborne Johnson had to have a weakness somewhere, and at the fag end of a career stretching back more than 16 years and 500-plus first-class matches - a career that has rained achievement upon his head in the kind of deluge Noah might have recognised - that weakness can finally be revealed. He is no good with mascots.

As captain of Leicester since time immemorial, he has subjected a generation of hero-worshipping kids to all manner of indignities. He has trodden on them, knocked them over, left them in the tunnel and reduced them to tears. Johnson may be able to win a World Cup almost single-handedly, but the simple task of leading an eight-year-old by the hand and waving to the crowd is entirely beyond him.

One of the wonderful Johnson stories circulating around Welford Road goes something like this: before the Premiership final with Bath at Twickenham four years ago, the most formidable forward to lock a scrum since the great All Black Colin Meads was charged with taking two mascots on to the field with him. Just for once, he produced what appeared to be a textbook performance, reaching the centre of the pitch without inflicting visible damage on either of the youngsters in his care. The formalities completed, he whispered a few words to the pair of them and sent them on their way, grinning like Cheshire cats. "And what did Martin say to you?" asked one of the waiting mothers. To which her son responded: "He was brilliant. He said, 'Right you two, let's get this show on the effing road'."

This evening, around the time Johnson might have taken high tea on the vicarage lawn in the unlikely event of his abandoning rugby in favour of holy orders, the referee will call time on the Premiership final between Leicester and Wasps at Twickenham and both show and road will come to an end. Some show, some road.

A World Cup victory and eight Lions caps over three tours, two of them as captain, are written in capital letters at the top of the international ledger, with a couple of Grand Slams penned in red-rose ink on the line below. And on the club front? Please. Two European titles, five league championships - including four consecutive Premierships - and a couple of domestic knock-out trophies for good measure. Johnson regards himself as "extremely fortunate"; everyone else regards him as extremely brilliant. Andy Robinson, the current England coach, thinks he is the best ever, in any position.

In the post-war era, there have been only three candidates for the two second-row positions available in the team of dreams. John Eales, the multi-talented Australian who led his country to the 1999 World Cup before retiring in 2001, is an obvious contender. Who else could ruck and maul like a genuine tight forward, leap like a salmon in the line-out, tackle like a flanker, run like a stag, make tactical decisions with the cool-headedness of a sporting Napoleon and then drag himself off the floor to kick a winning goal from 50 metres amid the dying embers of stoppage time? The aforementioned Meads is another. Like Eales, he could play loose as well as tight; unlike Eales, he was not shy when it came to smacking an opponent straight between the eyes. By common consent, he was the meanest son of a gun ever to don the silver fern. He was also one hell of a footballer.

Johnson completes the triumvirate. He played against Eales on many occasions, yet saw himself as inhabiting a parallel universe. "When people make these great claims about me as a player," he once said, "I look at the things John can do and wonder how anyone could put me in the same bracket." Yet Meads, whom he first encountered as a teenager during a grow-up-fast spell in New Zealand in the late 1980s, saw something in the young Midlander he admired. In fact, he admired it so much he made a Junior All Black of him. It is difficult to contemplate now, but Johnson could easily have stayed in King Country and played his Test rugby in a shirt the very opposite of white.

All his rugby life, Johnson has impressed people who generally make a virtue of not being impressed by anyone. Yet he does not impress himself. "The players I admire are the really talented ones," he said this week, during his last Wednesday chinwag after his last Wednesday training session. There was not so much as a molecule of false modesty in the air as he embarked on a characteristically down-to-earth, bullshit-free appraisal of a career spent digging away in the trenches. "The people who have skill and pace... they're the ones I appreciate. It must be so special to be able to play the game as they do. Who would I single out? There have been so many. But when Philippe Sella [the great French centre] came to Leicester to play for the Barbarians one year, I remember thinking he was in a different league."

Like so many of the England forwards who worked the oracle in the 2003 World Cup - Jason Leonard and Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio - Johnson straddles the amateur and professional eras. He made the first of his 361 appearances for Leicester in February 1989, in a midweek match against the RAF. Did he think he had cracked it that evening, that he had made the big time? "Ever played against the RAF on a Wednesday night?" he replied. "Big time indeed. The thing about Leicester in those days was that if you managed to get yourself on the field in a first-team fixture, you received all the kit. That was important. John Allen [the secretary at Welford Road for many years] had the key to a cupboard full of training shirts and tracksuits and God knows what else. By playing in that match against the Air Force, I was quids in."

He has been quids in ever since. When he returned from New Zealand, shocking the Leicester locals by referring to Meads as "Colin" rather than "Sir Colin" or "Mr Meads" or "His Majesty", he was fast-tracked into the senior side for a wet-weather cup game at Bath. He was stunning that day. The West Countrymen regarded the knock-out tournament as their own personal territory, but they were beaten and the new boy was among the chief reasons. "Yes, I suppose it was a bit of a breakthrough," Johnson now recalls, more than 15 years on.

And so it continued, season after season. When questions were asked, Johnson answered them; when examinations were set, he passed them. Two and a half years after that performance at the Recreation Ground, he made a strikingly confident international debut against France at Twickenham - the first of 84 caps for England, the last of which, in Sydney 19 months ago, proved by far the most momentous.

A few weeks later, he was back in New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions, having been summoned as a replacement for Wade Dooley. He played two Tests, winning one. At 23, he could count himself among the kings of the jungle, confirming Meads in the opinion he had reached four years previously.

Yet Johnson never lost sight of the fact that in sport, as in life, what goes up must come down. He needed familiarity, a place that would keep him honest and provide a soft landing when he needed one. Leicester provided it. Asked this week whether he had ever thought of leaving Welford Road, he replied: "No, not really. I never even got to the stage where anyone considered making me an offer. I've played here since I was 17, which is more than half my life, and sometimes, I wonder whether people like myself and Neil Back have hung around too long. There again, the game has changed so much, and the challenge of coming to terms with those changes has kept us fresh and motivated.

"The best thing about what I've done for a living these last few years is the camaraderie, the thought of going to work with like-minded people who share a common objective. At times, I've failed to appreciate what a great life I've had - like any job, the routine has its downside. But I've been so lucky, and believe me, a lot of this has been down to luck. Would I have been inspired to play rugby at all if my parents hadn't moved from Birmingham to Market Harborough when they did, putting the Tigers on my doorstep? I'm not sure.

"What will I do now? I know what I'll be doing in six months' time, but I'm not telling at the moment. Will I go into coaching? I have some curiosity about it, and I do regard it almost as a duty to pass on my experience to the next generation of players. If anyone wants me to have a word with the Under-19s, I'll do it without a second's thought. But it must be frustrating to be a full-time coach in the Premiership. That's a 52-week-a-year, seven-day-a-week responsibility, and if you're asking me whether I find that attractive at this precise moment in time, the answer is no."

As ever with Johnson, questions about anything more distant than the immediate future are pretty much a waste of time, and this week's version of the immediate future amounts to one thing, and one thing only: Wasps at Twickenham. The two sides had two wonderful Heineken Cup matches before Christmas - "as close to Test intensity as club rugby is likely to get," he confirmed - and there is every prospect of something similar being generated today.

"You guys like to get sentimental about these things - final game, a tear in the eye and so on," he said. "But we players live in a very practical world. If I were to spend the game wandering around with my head in the clouds thinking, 'Wow, this is the last time', I'll look very stupid very quickly. Yes, there is a little bit of me that can't quite get used to the fact that there will be no pre-season in July, no being flogged around the training pitch. But as I said to Neil Back, who is also playing his last game for Leicester, if we don't focus as we've always focused, Wasps will make idiots of us."

So that's that, then. All over, bar one last outbreak of shouting from the rooftops. But just before you go, old bean, explain this to the world and his wife. How did you manage to get through an entire career without being sent off?

"I was sent off," he replied. "It was when I was a kid in New Zealand, and I was playing for College Old Boys against Taupo United. Dale McIntosh, who later turned out for Pontypridd, almost knocked me unconscious, and I retaliated with a high tackle, for which I was dismissed. You blokes ought to get your facts straight. And while we're on the subject, that was a first-class match. I don't think it's been included in my tally, so when everyone says this is my 500th start in a senior game, they're wrong."

Thanks for that, Martin. Thank you and farewell.