Johnson revels in physical and mental mastery

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It is very nearly 30 years since Willie John McBride first reported that the British had finally stopped believing in "fairy-tale rugby", so there was something distinctly odd about another great cauliflower-faced second row forward and Lions captain, Martin Johnson, fantasising like a child over the outcome of this afternoon's crunch contest between England, the world's also-rans, and Australia, the world's best. "I'd love to find myself 30 points up against this lot and spend the last few minutes of the match waving at my mum and dad," he said. Then came the reality check. "But it's not going to happen that way, so we'd better prepare ourselves for a tight one."

It is very nearly 30 years since Willie John McBride first reported that the British had finally stopped believing in "fairy-tale rugby", so there was something distinctly odd about another great cauliflower-faced second row forward and Lions captain, Martin Johnson, fantasising like a child over the outcome of this afternoon's crunch contest between England, the world's also-rans, and Australia, the world's best. "I'd love to find myself 30 points up against this lot and spend the last few minutes of the match waving at my mum and dad," he said. Then came the reality check. "But it's not going to happen that way, so we'd better prepare ourselves for a tight one."

Phew, praise be to God. The last thing England need today is their most sober, hard-headed, ultra-pragmatic, bottom-line rationalist disappearing into the Twickenham sunset on some flight of red rose fancy. Yet Johnson's unguarded words captured the sense of profound longing that has been evident inside the England camp all week. They would give anything and everything to win this one; not because they owe the Wallabies big time for all the grief they have suffered at their hands since they last prevailed over them five years ago, nor because the unfamiliarity of the tourists' line-up has added a now-or-never dimension to the occasion, nor even because it would be pretty damned wonderful just to beat the Australians at anything. England's desire stems primarily from a frustration at their own inability to cross the shadow line dividing promise from achievement.

"Rugby people in England are always talking about how the team is developing, about where we are in terms of our progression towards some other goal, like the World Cup in 2003," said Johnson. "Well, the players aren't interested in development any more, and I haven't been wasting my time in team meetings asking them to treat this match as a stepping stone, another rung on the ladder. I really don't buy this stuff about performance levels and all the rest of it. I'm 30 years old now and I'm interested in the result. Nothing else. It's a Test match against Australia: we want to win, they want to win. There's not much else to say, is there?"

That Johnson has not had a fat lot to say for himself at any stage of his career does not necessarily confirm him as the taciturn monosyllabist of popular assumption. (If prime intelligence sources are to be believed, he was anything but taciturn during the recent four-day stag party in Benidorm that has already secured a place in Leicester RFC folklore). Having spent his foot-soldier years avoiding the public prints like the plague - he was the very embodiment of the strong, silent type - he now discharges his captaincy duties with an ironic flourish. Accuse him of offering a dull answer and he will fix you with a half-smile and suggest that you ask him a more interesting question.

It is in the inner sanctum of the hotel team room or the stadium dressing-room that he rises to his full height and imposes his dark, ruthless winner's personality on those around him. According to Andy Robinson, who went the full 15 rounds with Johnson in a long series of Bath-Leicester conflicts and now coaches his old adversary at England level, he commands the undivided attention of the national squad because he is the ultimate players' player.

"Martin was a great man to play against," said Robinson, who was on the losing side the day Johnson first announced himself as a Test lock in waiting by single-handedly dismantling the Bath line-out during a cup match at the Recreation Ground in 1991. "More than anything else, he tests you physically. I always felt I knew what I was getting with Martin, and I didn't find it particularly pleasant. You have a stark choice when you encounter someone like him: you either get stuck in, or you get out of the way. His competitive instinct ran, and continues to run, incredibly deep.

"Speaking from an Engand perspective, I would have to describe him as a coach's dream. He has a great understanding of tactics, of how to respond in any given situation, and he leads by example, which is a priceless advantage for a captain. He's 30, he's playing in a very competitive position and, if you made your judgements on a purely scientific basis, you would ask yourself questions about him. He's not the fittest or quickest lock available to us, he may not have the best hands, he may not be the No 1 line-out operator. But you have to see Martin in the round and when you put it all together, you find he has a greater mastery across the board than anyone else. That's without taking into account the mental side of his game, which really does set him apart. Rugby is played on a pitch, not on a piece of graph paper. And on the pitch, he's the best."

Johnson's natural toughness manifests itself in any number of ways, both physically and psychologically. For instance, he played a hard cup match at Gloucester last weekend when he might easily have rested up for today's little outing against John Eales and company. Why? Because he subscribes to the time-honoured theory that rugby players maintain form and fitness by playing rugby. "I've always played week in, week out," he explained. "You can train all you like, but you still need a certain number of games to get into the right frame of mind for international rugby. I have no problems playing six or seven days before a Test. I like it that way.

"I like close matches, too, and we've had our fair share of those against Australia over the last few years. We drew with them in 1997 and came close to beating them here in '98. In the Centenary Test in Sydney last year, they scored two tries against the run of play in the first half and we were chasing the game from there on in. I don't offer any excuses for those defeats because excuses aren't my thing. All I can say is that they were tight, competitive contests - the kind that make you relieved to be out there on the pitch rather than up there in the stand, chewing your nails off. I don't see this one being much different.

"They're a fine side, the Wallabies. We'll have to be very strong in ourselves when they have the ball, because they protect it well and have infinite supplies of patience when it comes to building attacks. If we're going to miss tackles - and let's face it, every side misses them some time or other - it will have to be close in, where the mistakes can be covered immediately. If we miss the Australian backs in one-on-one situations out wide, they'll score, no question. I want us to slow down their ball, put them on the back foot and play the pressure game. We'll need to show some Wallaby patience, too, although I can't ever remember telling myself to be patient during a Test. I just go at it, hell for leather."

There is a whole lot more to Johnson than that, of course; as Robinson says, he plays with his top four inches as well as his bottom 6ft or so. He breaks new ground today by winning his 56th cap, thereby surpassing Wade Dooley's record for an England lock, and a signal victory over the tourists, who have lost just one of their last 16 Tests, will increase his chances of setting a second, more impressive benchmark as the first player to lead successive Lions parties across the equator. The summer jaunt around Australia is not at the forefront on his mind, though. There are more urgent issues at hand.

"English rugby is beginning to produce real strength in depth, not least in my position," he said. "If necessary, people like Simon Shaw and Garath Archer could walk into this team and do a top job; there are double-figure Test second rows outside the squad at the moment, not to mention uncapped blokes like Steve Borthwick, who has made it on to the bench for the first time and is desperate to make a mark. So it's not a question of the Lions or anything else, is it? It can only be about me doing the business as a player and a captain in this one game. As I've said before, there is no glory in sport unless you perform. And you only perform by concentrating on the here and now."

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