Johnson contemplating international retirement

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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson seldom says much about anything - for much of the last decade, the phrase "not guilty" was pretty much the extent of his public conversation - and he was even quieter than usual yesterday as reports of his imminent retirement from international rugby followed him from Leicester to Belfast and back.

But everything points to a formal retreat into the past tense sometime this week, possibly after the Tigers' return match with Ulster at Welford Road on Saturday. And at that point, English rugby will know for sure that, at 33, a great captain has delivered his final team talk.

According to insiders at Leicester, Johnson had been tempted to play in the Six Nations' Championship, having led England to the Grand Slam last season - an achievement that underpinned their successful World Cup campaign in Australia. What he had not been tempted by was a return to the southern hemisphere in June, with the All Blacks and the Wallabies laying in wait. Once Clive Woodward, the England coach, had expressed an intention to select his Six Nations' team from those available to tour, Johnson was obliged to think again. That thinking now appears well advanced.

Struggling for fitness - his back condition prevented him from starting yesterday's Heineken Cup tie against Ulster at Ravenhill - he would hardly have been in ideal shape to lead England against Italy in Rome on 15 February. If he does call it quits, though, he will leave a hole the size of a small continent in the England set-up.

There are more quality second-row forwards in Red Rose country than anywhere else on the planet. Ben Kay, Danny Grewcock, Simon Shaw, Steve Borthwick, Chris Jones, Tom Palmer and Alex Brown are all locks of international quality; Johnson's protégé at Leicester, Louis Deacon, is no slouch either. But the maestro still performs more of the bread- and-butter tasks more expertly than anyone else, as he demonstrated in keeping England afloat in raging waters at the business end of the World Cup.

Yet with more potential replacements than he can shake a stick at, Woodward might not disappear into a blind panic at the thought of losing Johnson the player. Johnson the captain would be a different matter. The only man to lead two Lions parties across the equator, his profound understanding and total acceptance of the brutal realities of rugby at the most elevated level made him a leader in a million. .

Woodward faces a difficult call in this department. The outstanding candidate to replace Johnson should be, and perhaps is, Lawrence Dallaglio. Had the Wasps No 8 not fallen foul of the tabloids in the spring of 1999, when he was caught in a sex-and-drugs sting of staggering cynicism, Johnson might never have succeeded him as national captain. Long forgiven, Dallaglio is playing with sufficient energy to keep one eye on the 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand.

But along with some of Woodward's other occasional leaders - Neil Back, Matt Dawson, Kyran Bracken, Richard Hill - Dallaglio is a thirtysomething. If the coach believes a younger man should shoulder the burden, perhaps with a view on the 2007 World Cup in France, Jonny Wilkinson and Phil Vickery will find themselves under consideration, with the excellent Kay an intriguing outside bet.

Wilkinson, the Newcastle captain, led England against Italy during last season's Six Nations and is the team's vice-captain; Vickery, the Gloucester captain, against the Argentinians in Buenos Aires in 2002 and again against Uruguay in November.

Meanwhile, it seems Johnson is preparing to devote himself to Leicester, which, on the evidence of yesterday's 33-0 defeat, will be akin to devoting himself to the Titanic. But the great man is used to icebergs. He has been impersonating them on rugby fields for years, with unprecedented success.

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