Johnson's abdication to overshadow Leicester's big test

As the England captain prepares to step down, Sale's talented outside-half plots his return to the Woodward fold

Chris Hewett
Saturday 17 January 2004 01:00

Martin Johnson, club player. It is quite enough to be getting on with, given Leicester's predicament - a predicament openly described as "a crisis" by Dean Richards, who is not one of life's serial exaggerators.

Johnson is expected to announce his retirement from international rugby after this afternoon's do-or-die Heineken Cup rumble with Ulster at Welford Road, but the most successful of all the 55 post-war England captains will not be granted the peace and quiet he craves. The remains of his career will be no different to the rest of it, full of sound and fury.

Today has the word "cacophony" written all over it. The Leicester crowd are as noisy as any in the land and they will be screaming for deliverance after last weekend's depressingly limp performance in Belfast, when the former European champions went down 33-zip to an Ulster side armed with precious few Test caps.

Ulster have never won a European match on English soil, and most of their failures have been abject; indeed, they have never conceded less than 30 points, and have twice leaked more than 50. Should Leicester lose this one, the consequences will be far-reaching.

Yet the decibel count will be higher still once the match is over. Johnson plans to make a statement about his future, and can expect to disappear into a thicket of microphones and television cameras during the course of his address.

England's World Cup victory in Australia in November raised rugby's profile to unprecedented levels and along with Jonny Wilkinson, Johnson has received the lion's share of the new attention. It is not something he enjoys - when he paraded the Webb Ellis Cup around Welford Road a fortnight ago, he wore the expression of a man who had just missed the last train home - and today will be less enjoyable than ever, whatever his decision.

It says something for the man's public profile that his personal future is provoking more interest than that of his club. But Leicester's position is fascinating in the extreme, not least in terms of their immediate prospects in this tournament - a competition described by Graham Rowntree, their admirably committed prop, as "our holy grail".

They are fourth of four in Pool One and playing like amateurs, but three victories between now and 30 January would sneak them the place in the knock-out stage identified as a minimum requirement at the start of this benighted campaign.

To this end, Richards, the director of rugby, has made seven changes to his starting combination, three of them positional. The most significant of these - apart from Johnson's reappearance in the second row - sees Jaco van der Westhuyzen, the senior Springbok full-back in the World Cup, move to outside-half in place of the under-cooked Ramiro Pez. Leon Lloyd and Glenn Gelderbloom link up at centre in the absence of the injured Daryl Gibson and Ollie Smith, while Harry Ellis returns from suspension at scrum-half. As a result of all the chopping and changing, Austin Healey moves to the left wing and Sam Vesty to full-back.

If Sale, who face Leinster in a humdinger of a fixture at Edgeley Park tomorrow, have also been in reshuffle mode, it is through circumstance rather than desperation. The suspension of Andy Titterrell, their first-choice hooker, and a shoulder injury suffered by their out-sized prop, Andrew Sheridan, have led to a change of personnel in the front row, with Matt Cairns and Kevin Yates filling the gaps.

There have been tinkerings in the back five of the pack, too. Stuart Pinkerton, an outstanding success over the last two and a half seasons, has returned to Australia, so Chris Jones, an England player in waiting, moves from lock to No 8 with Alex Sanderson shifting to the open-side flank. Iain Fullarton will start in the second row.

Leeds, who must see off Frank Hadden's useful Edinburgh side at Headingley tomorrow to retain any hope of making it through the pool stage at the first attempt, have dropped their high-class Italian flanker Aaron Persico to the bench. "He has been away with Italy this week and has not had the ideal preparation," explained Phil Davies, the director of rugby. James Ponton, a dependable contributor during the World Cup, starts in the back row, while Matt Holt replaces Gary Powell at tight-head prop.

Gloucester, meanwhile, have no reason to see this afternoon's rematch with Munster at Thomond Park as the end of the affair; both sides are likely to reach the last eight if they win their last two group matches, so today's meeting is far less intense than last season's shoot-out.

But the West Countrymen, bolstered by the return to fitness of their England prop, Phil Vickery, know that a victory would virtually guarantee them a home quarter-final. It is a prize worth winning.

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