Warrior king's coronation day

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The Independent Online

When the bedlam broke out around him, Martin Johnson sought a moment's refuge in the place he knows best - that churned-up area of sporting no-man's-land near the half-way line of a rugby field, where victories are created if not secured; where the blood and gristle, the gunshot cracks of bone on bone, take the place of tries and penalties and drop goals as the currency of international rugby.

He knelt on one knee, bowed his battered head and reflected on the achievement that finally set a crown on his lifetime's effort at the unforgiving end of a brutal business.

He had been everywhere and experienced pretty much everything: three Lions tours, one of them a series victory in South Africa that sent a much-needed surge of energy through the British game; two Grand Slams; two European club titles; umpteen league and knockout championships. And here, in a city where England had never gone close to beating the Wallabies and in a situation where the meaning of "pressure" was ultimately redefined, he had delivered a master-class in hard-headed rugby realism. Johnson will deny it for ever and a day, but had he not stayed on the pitch for the full 100-odd minutes of this final, the Webb Ellis Cup would have stayed in Australia.

Four years previously, the other great second-row forward of the contemporary game, John Eales, lifted the trophy. Johnson was never an Eales, and he isn't one now: Eales could make try-saving tackles on the wing, give and take passes like a basketball player and kick match-winning goals. If the England captain attempted that kind of nonsense, the world would die laughing. But there are certain things - nasty, unedifying, utterly essential things - that Johnson does better than any lock in living memory, Eales included. And he did them all yesterday, just when he needed to do them.

He scrummaged supremely well - there is more to a successful scrum than three cauliflower-eared front-rowers - and when England's endlessly rehearsed line-out routines began to collapse in a fraught second half, it was Johnson who took responsibility and went looking for the ball. Against him was Justin Harrison, a confrontational customer with a sharp line in verbal put-downs who famously second-guessed the Englishman in the dying minutes of the final Lions Test in this very stadium in 2001. This time, Johnson turned the tables by knocking the 6ft 8in Wallaby clean out of his elongated stride.

But this was not even the half of it. Over the last three years, Johnson has steadily transformed his game from one of set-piece speciality to all-purpose effectiveness. Yesterday, that transformation reached full flower. His rucking, never less than ferocious, hit new heights of incandescent fury as he repeatedly smashed the Wallaby loose forwards away from the tackle-ball; his mauling, always muscular and direct, took on an added dynamism.

And then there was his ball-carrying, the aspect of his game most recently developed. A student of American football, Johnson is no one's idea of a running back - while he possesses a change of pace, it is generally from the slow to the snail-like. But at close quarters, where the battle was at its most molten, he repeatedly hurt the champions with his route-one rampages.

It was entirely appropriate that he, of all 30 players engaged in the dénouement, should have ploughed upfield one last time to set up the ruck from which Jonny Wilkinson dropped his decisive goal.

"Top decision," said Will Greenwood. "By using his sixth sense and taking that extra few yards, he put the Wallabies on the back foot and gave Jonny the half-second he needed."

Put all these God-given rugby gifts - some of his harsher critics would call them infernal talents - into the mix, and you have some player. Yet Johnson's mightiest contribution was his leadership. It was not merely a tactical contribution, although he reached his usual clear conclusions about how the game would be won far earlier than Wilkinson, Matt Dawson and their fellow game-shapers. (During the second half, when things were going pear-shaped, he repeatedly jabbed a tree-trunk forefinger towards Wallaby territory, as if to say: "For Christ's sake, let's kick the bloody thing down their end.") When push came to shove, as it usually does with Johnson, he appealed to the soul as well as the brain.

He had set the tone from the kick-off, as great captains have down the ages. He positively steamed upfield in the opening seconds and made the first tackle of match, a ball-and-all job on Nathan Sharpe. From that point on, he operated at a level one notch beyond the best of the Wallaby forwards, and took his senior lieutenants - Neil Back, Richard Hill, Lawrence Dallaglio - with him.

"If we'd lost this match, I don't know what we'd have done with ourselves," he muttered, an hour after wrapping his huge mitts around the ultimate object of rugby desire. It was a downbeat critique of a wonderful piece of theatre, but it is not Johnson's way to trip the light fantastic. Long may he glower, and drink from his half-empty glass.