Johnson the ultimate warrior steeled for defining moment

England's battle-hardened captain has the single-minded authority to inspire his team to success against Australia in tomorrow's final
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The Independent Online

Clues to the true nature of Martin Johnson, the England captain, of whom his nation expects nothing less than an ultimate warrior's performance in the World Cup final against Australia tomorrow, are still as elusive as a point of calm in a raging storm.

Is he a hero to be enshrined by his compatriots as he seeks to deliver the most thrilling moment in English team sport since the triumph of Alf Ramsey's footballers in 1966? Or is he the raw, intimidating face of win-at-any-price?

Opinions inevitably remain extreme and perhaps unshakeable. Some say that at times he has been no better than a licensed thug. Others, including his coach, Clive Woodward, insist he is the best captain in the history of English rugby, a gargantuan leader who now dwarfs all his rivals on the international stage.

Somewhere, though, buried in the interminable ruck and maul of his adult life, is the real "Jonno" and if his willingness to cast light on this enigmatic fellow has always been sparse, there is a sense here that the sheer force of his ambition could well release a unique floodgate of emotion if the moment of triumph does indeed come in the Telstra Stadium.

This can certainly be suggested with more confidence now than at any time before the final whistle sounded on England's superb crushing of the French in last Sunday's semi-final.

Then, we saw another Johnson. Clearly moved almost to the point of tears, he wrapped his great arms around France's captain, Fabien Galthié, and what followed was something strikingly more than the usual conventions of win and loss.

It was the embrace of men who had played to the limits of their sporting lives. The announcement of the 34-year-old Galthié's retirement was a few days away. At 33, Johnson had plainly survived for one last shot at winning the World Cup. Before the semi-final both had peered into the eye-sockets of the skull's head of defeat, and now one was a winner and one a loser.

A few days later the winner confided his emotions at the moment of victory. "I felt for Fabien Galthié," said Johnson. "I have always admired him as a player, and I knew that he wanted this as much as I did, and in the last 15 minutes, when we were on top, really turning up the pressure, I just had to admire the way he kept playing, kept trying to find a way to do something. It was clear they were beaten, but he wouldn't accept it."

At moments like that. Johnson suggested, a guy on the other side can become like a brother as much an as opponent. "I felt for him, I'd been there, and it was a special moment," said the England captain.

There has been a smattering of other insights into another Johnson these last few weeks.

A small ripple of laughter passed among rugby aficionados during that French match when the little wing Christophe Dominici was held, almost indulgently, at arm's length by an amused Johnson, whose face was then contorted by shock and disbelief when his relatively midget attacker appeared to strike out for his eyes.

The captain's second-row partner, Ben Kay, for whom Johnson undertook ushering duties with massive formality at his recent wedding, speaks of rare moments when the big man shows a hint of softening. "He said the other day," Kay reports, "that when he goes home to his little daughter Molly it is great that she doesn't care whether he won or lost."

A small key, perhaps, to the driven nature of England's extraordinary monolith captain, a little aside that speaks of some ultimate tyranny exerted by the need to win, the suggestion that in the end it is perhaps the only meaningful measurement of a man's worth, at least in the world that Johnson believes he inhabits. It would certainly explain a lot; not least the moments of hot violence, so shocking to those who believe that without discipline, without the drawing of a clearly defined line between all-out physical commitment and mere thuggery, rugby could slip easily into providing a haven for out-and-out psychopaths.

Johnson rarely discusses the worst examples of breakdown in his own discipline, but they can hardly be ignored when, as it will surely come in the next 12 months or so, perhaps after a last Six Nations' campaign, a final assessment of his career is made. But earlier this year he did briefly address the problem of an image fashioned most dramatically by three incidents of unbridled violence.

The "catalogue of shame" presented by his interrogator read; 1997, a shocking, unprovoked assault on the All Black scrum-half, Justin Marshall; 2000, a kneeing of and breaking of the ribs of the Australian, Duncan McRae; 2002, an all-out assault on the Saracens hooker Robbie Russell, which, amid great controversy, did not prevent his selection by Woodward for the big game against France in Paris.

Johnson refused to do penance. "I don't think the press fully appreciates what happens out there sometimes," he said. "There are some really dirty players in the game that they don't have a clue about but on the circuit are well-known. The thing with Robbie Russell was just ridiculous. They made a huge thing about it and I ended up going to a hearing after I'd been given a yellow card.

"I really hurt McRae. I broke his ribs and I did show regret, but then he went and chinned Ronan O'Gara 10 times, so that all turned round pretty quickly. Suddenly, it was 'Oh, Jonno, you must have known something we didn't'.

"Rugby is a violent contact sport, but violent doesn't mean dirty. If I start from one end of the garden and you start from the other and we run at each other and collide in the middle that's pretty violent, isn't it? But it's not punching and kicking, and there's an integrity about the game that makes it great."

He is also fond of American football and, unsurprisingly, has a particular soft spot for arguably the hardest team in the rolls of that celebration of full body contact, the Chicago Bears of the mid-1980's. A special hero: Mike Singletary, a linebacker of whom it was said you could see the foam forming around his lips when he anticipated the sacking of a quarterback. Johnson might have been even fonder of an earlier Bear linebacker, Dick Butkus. Once the team bus of Chicago's beaten opponents was hit by a car near the airport. One of the players groaned: "It must be that bastard, Butkus."

Johnson's appreciation of his own game has always been governed by his view from the trenches, and who had a better grounding in such warfare than him?

He was still a raw-boned teenager when he went off to play in New Zealand up-country rugby, and he talks in awe about unknown players who drove in from the bush and spent 80 minutes "bashing every opponent in sight". He came home as hard as one those gnarled old trees which decorate the spectacular Kiwi countryside, and his promotion through the Leicester ranks and onwards to the England team, at 22, was a formality.

When he was called in to replace the injured Wade Dooley against France at Twickenham in 1993, his team-mate Tim Rodber speculated that the new boy's "arse was going". But the consensus was that he was being ironic. Johnson played most of the game in a daze, concussed after an accidental clash of heads with the French forward Laurent Seigne, but he acquitted himself well and when he collected his first cap that evening he was told: "This morning you were a young man of 22. Tonight you're an old man of 22."

Johnson, like his star team-mate Jonny Wilkinson, carefully screens his private existence; his rugby belongs to the nation, his life belongs to himself and his family. He married his New Zealand girlfriend, farmer's daughter, Kay, and there is not a hint of Beckhamesque celebrity about the couple. He drives a big black Mercedes, which some would say is appropriate; a large, substantial but quite unflashy vehicle.

Watching Johnson go through his public duties this week, talking of the value of intensity and self-belief, one former England international took a stab at character assessment. "He's matured a lot. He's very bright about knowing what makes a winning team, but let's face it, he's always going to be a bloody-minded old bastard. But he's our bloody-minded old bastard, and God knows we need him on Saturday."

His finest moment so far, Johnson agrees, was when he led the Lions to victory in South Africa in 1997. He played brilliantly and with great discipline through the tour. The Lions coach, Ian McGeechan, had explained his surprising selection by saying: "I wanted somebody who I knew would be knocking on the South Africans' door every minute of every game, and I knew Jonno was the best man to do that."

When he came home from South Africa he was showered with praise, and some of it was supplied by me. This provoked a letter from his late mother, Hilary, a sportswoman and teacher who will no doubt occupy a deep place in his thoughts whatever the outcome of tomorrow's match. She thanked me for my sentiments, noting that I had previously been a severe critic. She said that all she had ever wanted for her son was the chance for him to truly express himself - and show himself in his best light.

Tomorrow the light is optimum. He carries the hopes of England - and the perfect opportunity to define himself, finally and truly. The suspicion, more confidently felt than ever before, is that it will be as a winner.