Johnson continues to glory in ferocity without fuss

Leicester's captain is aiming to impose his unique brand of authority on tomorrow's Heineken Cup tie against Wasps

Anyone studying the most symbolic photographic image from last weekend's snarling, supremely antagonistic set-to between Wasps and Leicester - perhaps the most compelling pool match ever staged under the auspices of the Heineken Cup - will find the eye drawn instantly to the unusual position of Martin Corry's left hand, wrapped as it is around Lawrence Dallaglio's throat in a less than fraternal manner. But the truly unnerving element of the picture is to be located at the margin, where the familiar figure of Martin Osborne Johnson can be be seen with a wholly unfamiliar expression on his beaten-up face.

Anyone studying the most symbolic photographic image from last weekend's snarling, supremely antagonistic set-to between Wasps and Leicester - perhaps the most compelling pool match ever staged under the auspices of the Heineken Cup - will find the eye drawn instantly to the unusual position of Martin Corry's left hand, wrapped as it is around Lawrence Dallaglio's throat in a less than fraternal manner. But the truly unnerving element of the picture is to be located at the margin, where the familiar figure of Martin Osborne Johnson can be be seen with a wholly unfamiliar expression on his beaten-up face.

As Corry goes after Dallaglio, his immediate predecessor as England's first-choice No 8, Johnson appears to be laughing his socks off. His features, generally darker than the Bible-black shade imagined by Dylan Thomas in "Under Milk Wood" and more beetle-browed than the most forbidding of Victorian schoolmasters, are so filled with light that he might be suspected of having found God.

If ever the rugby public deserves an explanation from the World Cup-winning captain - and heaven knows, he is no stranger to explanations - it is now. Is the smile one of profound joy at the prospect of an all-in scrap? One of purest schadenfreude at the sight of his old red-rose mucker getting his come-uppance at long last? Or one of relief, born of the knowledge that someone else is doing the fighting for a change? (Let's face it: this third possibility is seriously remote).

Johnson has not made a particular habit of avoiding issues down the years, but he avoided this one like the proverbial plague when interrogated at the Leicester training ground this week. "I wasn't laughing," he insisted. "I don't do laughter on the field. The photographer must have got me at a strange moment, when I looked as though I was laughing, but wasn't really. And anyway, I haven't seen the picture." As an exercise in clarification, this was about as convincing as Neil Back's attempt to account for his shoving to the ground of the international referee, Steve Lander, at the end of the 1996 cup final. "I thought it was Andy Robinson," Back announced, referring to his direct opponent that day. Suffice to say that Robinson resembled the unfortunate Lander in the way Ann Widdecombe resembles Gwyneth Paltrow.

Happily, we do not need Johnson to psychoanalyse himself to extract the marrow of meaning from the picture. If ever a thirtysomething forward with a medical casebook of injuries and an unparalleled record of achievement is showing clear signs of enjoying his rugby as much, if not more, than he ever did during a decade with England and the Lions, it is the Leicester captain. He is having himself a ball these days: still glorying in the ferocity of big-time club competition, still revelling in the challenge of intimidating his opponents and imposing his unique brand of authority on an afternoon's thud and blunder.

And he still insists on doing it his way, with a minimum of fuss. During his days in the white shirt of his country, Johnson had no truck with hyperbole; there was more chance of him turning in a half-hearted performance than of exaggerating the importance of this match or that moment for the benefit of the public prints. He has not changed one iota, as his appraisal of last Sunday's match - and, by extension, this Sunday's return fixture - demonstrated. He enjoyed the game at High Wycombe but he was in no mood to make any outlandish statement about the quality of the rugby or the significance of the result.

"It was what it was," he said, not entirely helpfully. "The match was certainly full-blooded, with two highly competitive teams going at each other with passion and enthusiasm. There were a lot of bodies around the place, and some skilful rugby too, at times. A number of the blokes here have talked about how much they got out of the occasion, but I prefer to discuss how we got on the wrong side of the referee and gave away all those dumb penalties. I think our penalty count was somewhere in the region of 19, which is way too many. We can't give Wasps that sort of leg up this time and expect to win the game.

"By scoring three tries as quickly as we did and opening up such a big lead so early, we put ourselves in an unusual situation. As captain, I had to approach things slightly differently than I'd anticipated, in the sense that I had to prevent players thinking they could also run in three tries in the second quarter, and the third, and the fourth. When things are going well, there is always a temptation to say 'Hey, we'll just keep scoring'. It never works like that. It's important to keep the pressure on your team because at this level, you're either spot-on all the time or you struggle.

"For long periods last weekend, we found ourselves struggling to get out of our own half, even though we were so strong at the set-pieces. That tells you how things can go wrong, and we'll have to be especially wary now we're playing them at our place. At the moment, I'd say our attitude is better away from home, because we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking it will happen for us just because we're at Welford Road. Wasps are European champions, just as we were in 2001 and 2002. That means they are fully equipped to win big games on the road." In one sense, Johnson is entirely anti-romantic. "Will I be putting that game at the top of my all-time list of ferocious matches? No, because I don't have such a list," he said. "I tend not to see the bigger picture that everyone keeps talking about every time an important game comes round. The way I see things, it's about that one match - about myself and 14 colleagues against 15. That's the test, isn't it? To come out of that particular contest with a victory. There's nothing else to think about, really."

Yet in another sense Johnson is as romantic as they come, because he continues to play the game for the purest of motives. Yes, he is well paid and worth a mint, although nowhere near as wealthy as even the least experienced top-of-the-draft recruits in American football, a sport that fascinates him and sends him into paroxysms of verbosity that would amaze those who hear him talk reluctantly of rugby. Yes, he can afford to run around for the fun of it now, because all the serious stuff has been achieved. But for all that, he is utterly persuasive in his assertion that this is where he finds his raison d'être, as well as his wage packet.

"People are always asking what motivates me," he said, with an expression of studied bemusement. "It's been going on for ever. I was asked about it when I returned from my first Lions tour - and I was 23 at the time. Now, I get a lot of this 'are you still enjoying it' business, and questions about whether my concentration levels are what they were, now that the international thing is over and done with. It's quite simple. I've always enjoyed playing rugby, and I've always concentrated, both with Leicester and England. Actually, I find it slightly insulting when people say: 'Now he's packed in England, he can concentrate on Leicester.' This club has always had my complete commitment. Believe me, if I wasn't fully focused on playing here, I wouldn't be playing at all."

Two final questions, then. Will he be playing for the Lions in New Zealand next summer, and will he be playing for anyone come September? "The Lions? Look, if you retire from international rugby, you know what you're getting into - or rather, you know what you're getting out of. If individuals want to declare themselves available even though they're not playing for their countries, it's up to them - and up to Clive Woodward to pick them or leave them behind. All I would say is that those guys are not putting themselves in the best position to be selected." It was the clearest hint yet that unlike Dallaglio, who has always been up for the tour, Johnson has drawn the line.

And retirement? Is this his last hurrah? "I don't know," he said. "And if I did, I wouldn't tell you here, at this point in the season. We're getting ready to play Wasps in a very important Heineken Cup match. Nothing else matters."

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