Johnson calls time with Twickenham testimonial

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The Independent Online

Not even Martin Johnson can play rugby in two hemispheres on the same day, unless he is tackled by Jonah Lomu in south-west London and ends up somewhere in New Zealand, so the moment he scheduled a testimonial match at Twickenham for the afternoon of 4 June - the date of the opening British and Irish Lions' tour match against Bay of Plenty in Rotorua - it was clear he was signalling the end of something. What was not clear was that he was signalling the end of everything.

Not even Martin Johnson can play rugby in two hemispheres on the same day, unless he is tackled by Jonah Lomu in south-west London and ends up somewhere in New Zealand, so the moment he scheduled a testimonial match at Twickenham for the afternoon of 4 June - the date of the opening British and Irish Lions' tour match against Bay of Plenty in Rotorua - it was clear he was signalling the end of something. What was not clear was that he was signalling the end of everything.

Last week, Johnson confirmed his unavailability for this summer's Lions' trek to All Black country. Yesterday, the great lock forward from Leicester announced that his trundle around Twickers in the company of Lomu would be the last senior game of his career - a career that has brought him garlands and glittering prizes as well as two cauliflower ears, a beaten-up face and more bruised knuckles than both he and the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary committee would care to remember. It does not require the services of a soothsayer to predict that this testimonial will be bigger, and probably better, than any in the history of the sport.

"It doesn't come to you in a flash, but you develop a general feeling about the right time to go," explained England's World Cup-winning captain. "I'm sure I've picked the right time. You have to play this game for the right reasons - I never played for the money or the caps or the silverware, but for the love of it - and I didn't ever want to find myself out there on the pitch knowing that I wasn't 100 per cent into what I was doing. I'm enjoying this season with Leicester, I'll continue to enjoy it and I know I'll desperately miss my rugby when it's over. But I've had my turn. Now, it's the turn of others to take their opportunities."

Talking of which... step forward Mr Lomu. For Jolly Jonah, the Twickenham match could be the start of something. Back in serious training after a kidney transplant, he has not played rugby since spending 40 minutes on the field for Wellington, his provincial side in New Zealand, against Taranaki in the late summer of 2003. He will not play before 4 June, either, but the biggest wing ever to make the grade in the first-class game is fixated on appearing at Twickenham, where he single-handedly defeated England in the 1999 World Cup and very nearly produced a repeat performance three years later.

He trains three times a day, six days a week, and is within a couple of kilograms of his fighting weight. While he has yet to engage in full-contact rugby work, he spends a good deal of time working out with kick-boxers - a fairly momentous achievement, given that his wife Fiona was, until recently, charged with the onerous task of helping him put one foot in front of the other.

Ten years after being diagnosed as suffering from a nephrotic syndrome, Lomu was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed yesterday, full of confidence that he will successfully relaunch his career on Johnson Day. But there were dark tales, too. "My greatest fear was not whether I would play rugby again, but whether I would walk again," he said. "At one stage, I would manage two steps and then fall over. Now, I can run. I've gone through three trainers already, because they couldn't keep up with me. If anyone thinks I can't do this, they can come round my house and we'll sort it out."

A healthy percentage of the Twickenham gate receipts will go towards the three charities closest to Johnson's heart - the NSPCC, the Macmillan Cancer Relief fund and Sparks, which finances paediatric medical research. Lomu will make a substantial donation to the New Zealand-based charity, Kidney Kids.

Back in the world of regular rugby, Gordon Bulloch of Glasgow will lead Scotland in the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. Capped 70 times, more than any hooker in the annals of the Scottish game, he captained his country through the autumn Test series against Australia, Japan and South Africa, as well as in two Tests in 2003.

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