Martin Johnson: England are back on the pitch but their hero is happy in the bar

An Australian jibe during the Rugby World Cup, one they were subsequently made to choke on, was that the England XV, with its fair share of players over 30, was a "Dad's Army".

If I may be forgiven for reviving that discredited sentiment, a Six Nations' Championship without Martin Johnson leading England is like a series of Dad's Army without Captain Mainwaring. Some, however, pitch it with more hyperbole than that. It's more like contemplating the Second World War without Winston Churchill, they suggest. Whatever, it's safe to say that Johnson will be grievously missed tomorrow and for the rest of the tournament, for his contribution as a mighty second-row forward as much as for his inspirational leadership.

Words such as "mighty" and "inspirational" have stuck to Johnson like glue since he lifted the Webb Ellis Cup, and since his decision to retire from the international game they have been joined by "legendary". It is slightly disappointing, therefore, to meet the great man not on the rarefied slopes of Mount Olympus but in the Bar Dos Hermanos on Queen's Road, Leicester.

He is here mainly to launch World Champion Ale for Tetley's - Official Beer of England Rugby, and I am happy to come second to a pint of bitter. In fact, if I'd been asked to pirouette through Leicester city centre in a pink tutu to secure this encounter, I would at least have given it serious consideration. For though I have interviewed Johnson twice before, the last time just before the World Cup, he hadn't then been elevated to the stature of Churchill combined with Lord Nelson.

In the bar he has something else in common with Nelson; a hand out of action. He offers me his left, and says that a rugby injury to his right has been compounded by hand-shaking on an epic scale since he returned from Australia.

"It doesn't help, people continually giving you the big grip," he says with, if not quite a smile, then a fractional easing of the famous glower.

We will come to the razzmatazz, and how so resolutely un-razzmatazzy a person as Johnson has dealt with it, but first things first. Tomorrow, England's Six Nations campaign kicks off against Italy in Rome. Rugby fans everywhere, I venture, will want to know where he will be and what his thoughts will be?

"I'll be in Rome," he says. "The club [Leicester Tigers] have a trip on with some sponsors. I love Rome. It's a great city."

His love for Rome was not the emotion I was interested in. So I push a little harder. "Yeah, well, people have been saying this must have been a strange week for me, but frankly, no. I have made my decision to retire, and I'm quite lucky in a way that I could make it and didn't get a phone call from someone making it for me.

"But yeah, it will be strange on Sunday, being on the outside. In five years' time it will be a bit different, with players in there that I don't particularly know, but I've played with every one of these guys. I'll be quite interested to see how I feel, actually. Whether I'm nervous for them, or excited for them. But I'm entirely comfortable with it. I'm not dreading it or anything like that."

Will he meet up with the team in Rome? "No, Christ, no. When you're in Test match mode you're in Test match mode. I don't even know what hotel they're in. No, if I wanted to be with them then I shouldn't have retired. I won't be avoiding them, but I won't be going out of my way to see them. I'm there as Joe Public."

This is typical Johnson: almost disingenuously matter-of-fact. I have never found him to be the taciturn character of popular portrayal; rather, he has always seemed affably articulate. His affability, though, does not extend to opening his heart, even to his team-mates. To rouse the players before the World Cup final all he did was ask them to look at one another.

"If I'd given a big set-piece speech they would just have laughed at me," he says. "They knew that wasn't my style. Mind you, a laugh might have relaxed them."

I can't believe that he will feel relaxed himself when he sees Lawrence Dallaglio leading the team out. The truth, surely, is that his insides will be churned up like butter, although you would break more than a few cattle prods trying to get him to admit as much. Maybe that's why he has refused invitations to be a television pundit, even though there is no better place than Rome in which to pontificate.

"I might have a go [at punditry] and see what happens, but I would rather let them get on with it. Hopefully, as soon as they've played a game or two nobody will be talking about Martin Johnson and the England team, just about the England team. And hopefully everyone will be raving about a fantastic performance in Rome, not dwelling on the fact that Wilko's not there, Mike Tindall's not there, I'm not there, Backy's [Neil Back] not there ..."

For now, though, let us dwell. Wilkinson and Tindall are out, injured. Johnson is out, retired. But his Leicester team-mate Back, such a powerhouse in the World Cup, has been controversially dropped. Did that surprise Johnson?

"Yes, a little bit. With Lewis [Moody] not available through injury, and Chris Jones a very good player but relatively short of international experience, I was surprised that he wasn't even in the XXII. But Clive [Woodward] stands or falls by what he does..."

He is excited, he adds, by the prospect of seeing Jason Robinson start at centre. "I'm a little bit surprised it's not happened before now, to be honest. I know it's been in Clive's thoughts for a while. And Jason has Will [Greenwood] alongside him - a great rugby head, who'll help him out if he needs it. To have Robinson, [Ben] Cohen, [Iain] Balshaw and [Josh] Lewsey on the same field ... that's a lot of pace on the counter-attack."

All the same, the former captain warns against the dangers of underestimating the Italians.

"Against Italy there's always talk about how many points you're going to score. But they're a physical side, and they're at home. If sides are physical you have to 'out-physical' them. Our defence has to work harder than theirs. We have to be quicker round the field. And if we beat them there, then what else will they have to give? Basically, we have to win the game with the same attributes as if we were playing France in Paris. And with Lawrence as captain, we won't be backing down from any confrontation."

Johnson and Dallaglio form a powerful mutual admiration society. In his best-selling autobiography, Johnson praises Dallaglio's scandal-terminated captaincy and effectively gives his benediction to the idea of his formidable predecessor also becoming his successor. For his part, Dallaglio wrote after Johnson's retirement that "He had a great sense of timing, always knowing when to say something and when not to".

The irony, in the light of this assessment, is that the man who always knew when to say something and when not to, is suspected by some high-ups in the Rugby Football Union of mistiming his most important declaration of all, the one made in a phone call to Woodward. When Johnson told Woodward that he had decided to retire, the coach asked, "Are you sure?" It's a lovely detail. As if Johnson might have said, "Oh, go on then, I'll stick around a bit longer".

Instead, Johnson said that yes, he was sure. "I said to him that if I was even thinking about it, then I should go," Johnson tells me. "There are two schools of thought: one that says you should retire at the top; and one that says you're a long time retired. I understand both sides of the argument but in the end it's how you feel. If I'd played longer for England because I wanted to retire at Twickenham then I would have been playing for the wrong reasons. Similarly, if I retired just because we'd won the World Cup, that would be wrong too. You have to want to play the game for the game's sake. I just think it's the right time for me."

Noticing, for the first time, flecks of grey in Johnson's black hair, I ask him whether there was any physical dimension to his decision, whether he didn't want to put his 6ft 7in frame through another punishing international campaign. "No, it's more the mental side," he says. "I'm nearly 34 and obviously it gets harder, but if the World Cup were in June I'd be getting ready to play. And in Australia a lot of the older guys were stronger towards the end of the tournament."

Can he envisage a moment when he might regret his decision? "I already have moments when I think, 'Jesus, what have I done?' But I played 84 games for England, and there are plenty of good players who don't play 10. If I thought I'd regret it then I wouldn't have done it."

Fair enough. So, having accepted that the subject is probably not going to get him blubbering on to the sofa in the bar, we turn to the difficult situation at his beloved Leicester, and the ejection of the director of rugby, Dean Richards. There are one or two players at the club who are said to have agitated for the removal of Richards, but it's safe to assume that Johnson wasn't among them.

"It's very, very sad," he says. "Dean's been involved in everything the club has won for the last 20-odd years. And as a player I feel a certain responsibility for that's happened; we haven't played well enough for a while now, although if you want to look for excuses, there are plenty there."

In trying to restore the Tigers to the top of the heap, he adds, he hopes to play for at least one more full season. It is not his intention, at least not for now, to take Richards's old job. "But there's a state of flux at the club, and if they want younger players in then that'll be fine. I want to help the best way I can."

His return to club rugby less than a week after lifting the World Cup was utterly disorientating, he says. "I sat in the changing-room before sitting on the bench against Bath and felt very, very strange. It was bizarre, thinking that the last time I'd prepared for a match it was the World Cup final, although as soon as I got out there to warm up, I felt like I'd never been away."

But he had been away, and returned with the Holy Grail, with the result that his life will never again be quite the same. Indeed, I have been told that after he leaves me he is going to address the England cricket team on the business of winning.

He snorts at the idea. "I am going to a function with the England cricket team," he says. "I haven't got a magic wand. In sport, and in life, people like to think there's some magic that's going to make something that's hard easy. Everyone's looking for the magic diet, or the magic get-fit. But it's not like that, life, is it? It's mainly about hard work. A lot of little things add up to make the big things.

"Clive's main achievement was to create an élite environment in which people strived for - if you want to say excellence, then fine. They strived to be better, and 'inspired' is a pretty big word, but they were enthused by trying to improve themselves."

This, it occurs to me, is probably about as rousing a speech as Johnson will ever make. Yet still he will be forever held as our sporting equivalent of Churchill.

"It's funny, isn't it," he says, when I ask whether he gets embarrassed by all the superlatives. "I think some of the guys are fed up with it. They answered all the questions about me after the World Cup, and when I retired they answered them all again.

"But at the end of it all, we're all just rugby players, aren't we?" Up to a point, Johnno, up to a point.

Martin Johnson life and times

1970 Born in Solihull.

1987 Plays for England Schools.

1989 Plays for England Colts. Senior Leicester debut. Plays for King Country in New Zealand.

1990 Represents New Zealand Under-21s.

1991 Represents England U-21.

1993 Makes England debut against France as a last-minute replacement for Wade Dooley. Helps Leicester win the Pilkington Cup. Makes Lions debut on tour of New Zealand.

1995 Ever-present in England's Five Nations Grand Slam-winning campaign and World Cup semi-final run.

1997 Captains Leicester. Leads Lions to series triumph on tour of South Africa.

1999 Wins first of four successive Premiership titles with Leicester.

1999 Appointed England captain by Clive Woodward, replacing Lawrence Dallaglio. Leads England to quarter-finals of World Cup.

2001 Wins first of two successive Heineken Cup victories with Leicester.

2003 Leads England to Six Nations Grand Slam and historic away Test wins over New Zealand and Australia.

Nov 2003 Lifts the World Cup for England in Australia.

Jan 2004 Receives a CBE in New Year's Honours list. Announces his international retirement with 84 caps.

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