“..among the best ever performances from a lock forward”
The 100th and final minute of the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final is a moment that will forever be etched in the memories of English rugby union fans. With the scores tied at 17-a-piece in extra time a begloved Matt Dawson popped the ball back to Johnny Wilkinson just outside the 22. The fly-half would grasp the ball before lining up to add the final three points of his tournament leading tally of 113, the ball spiralling off his boot and plum between the posts, a moment that would cement his own status as one of the sports greats.
What has perhaps been lost over time is the impact that one other player had on that Webb Ellis Trophy clinching move, the captain that day, Martin Johnson.
A couple of phases prior to that moment, and having seen his side have victory slip from it’s grasp on the 80th minute of regular time, the giant lock had called an audible encouraging Wilkinson to take a step back into the striking pocket. Knowing possession would be key as the clock counted down England’s captain would take the lead ambling towards the heart of the melee, picking the ball up and driving just a couple of paces forward, absorbing one last Aussie hit to allow Wilkinson the time to compose himself for what would become an iconic moment.
Johnson didn’t even see the ball go over with his body the last to haul itself off the turf at the end of a gruelling World Cup campaign but it was the full stop on a display that would see his opposite number, Wallabies captain John Eales, to proclaim post match that it was “among the best ever performances from a lock forward”.
He received his reward less than half an hour later as he made his way towards the centre of the podium to raise the most prestigious prize in world rugby. The lift would be text book, a fittingly functional moment of celebration for a giant of the game who had made the complexities of his role both as player and captain seem so straightforward particularly in those preceding couple of hours.
Things could have been very different though for the 84-time capped lock as his earliest foray into the world of contact sport saw him prefer to turn out as a tight end for British American Football side Leicester Panthers and whilst that short-lived spell now forms little more than a footnote in the Johnson story he retains a passion for the NFL to this day.
Even once he had the right type of oval ball in hand it was nearly a career in the all black of New Zealand that beckoned, as following a successful trial he would tour with the Kiwi’s U21 side in 1990, one of his team mates that day, John Eales. It’s funny how life sometimes comes full circle.
Fortunately for England national allegiances in rugby at times can be fleeting and after firmly establishing himself in a Leicester side that would go on to dominate in the late nineties he made his Roses debut on 13th January 1993 against France in the Five Nations. A late call up for the injured Wade Dooley, it would be a competitive bow that would start a legacy and having established himself for both club and country he would be handed his first armband for the Tigers in 1995, a year in which he would also be a key figure as England claimed a FIve Nations Grand Slam.
With Johnson’s stock rising he was named captain for the successful and historic tour of South Africa in 1997, not only the first of the professional era but also the first since the end of aparthied in the rainbow nation.
Two years earlier South African captain Francois Pienaar had experienced his own iconic moment as the Springbok claimed the world crown on home soil in 1995 and so a 2-1 series victory for the Lions was a wholly unexpected outcome. Even before a ball was kicked South African sports magazine SA Sports Illustrated decreed that, “The British Lions arrived in South Africa rated – by their own media, South African media and supporters – as nothing more than rank underdogs. A nice bunch of blokes who were making a bit of history and, in so doing, winning friends rather than matches”.
Dissension in the Springbok ranks allowed the Lions a way in though and led by Scottish Head Coach Sir Ian McGeechan and captain Johnson success came quickly in the opening test in Newlands before another drop goal, this time from Jermey Guscott in the second test, sealed a series win with a game to spare. McGeechan and Johnson had a formidable relationship despite their cross border rivalry and when the Scot was asked to pick his dream Lions XV, he said of “Jonno”, “I just put his name down and moved on. It was as simple as that.”
The captains armband for England under another Sir, this time Sir Clive Woodward, followed in 1999 as the former Bath Head Coach went around rejuvenating the national side with Johnson enforcing his ethos on field. The duo would go on to lead England to three of the next four Six Nations titles along with that World Cup triumph in 2003 whilst for Leicester Johnson would lift the Premiership title on five occasions and claim the European Cup twice in 2001 and 2002 during a golden age for the MIdlands side.
He would continue playing for a further two years following that last gasp win in Australia but injuries would begin to take their toll and in 2005 he retired from playing eventually going on to take the helm with England in 2008.
Despite his colossal stature a gentler figure lay within and it was this amiable nature off field that was viewed by critics as one of the reasons that his spell in charge of the national side never reached the heights many hoped it would. He would go on to win a Six Nations title as coach in 2011 but his sides inability to regularly perform against the very best saw his spell come to an end following a poor showing at that year’s World Cup.
Johnson remains a popular figure in rugby circles and his tranquil demeanour matched with a wealth of knowledge and experience that only a sustained period at the top can bring ensures he remains a well-respected pundit in media circles whilst his personal achievements saw him awarded the CBE in 2004 and become an inductee to the IRB Rugby Hall of Fame.
For England fans though Johnson will always be their captain, perhaps their greatest of all time, a towering inspiration both on and off the pitch who led by example and who helped orchestrate the move which led to English rugby’s greatest success to date.