'Pretty Boy' Johnson and his All Blacks double-life
Taupo, North Island
On Saturday evening, Martin Johnson will walk out onto the Eden Park pitch as England rugby's dominant figure of the past two decades: brutal enforcer, stalwart skipper, World Cup winner and now manager and sole selector.
The idea of him leading the All Blacks out the following night, cheered to the top of the huge temporary stands as a New Zealand legend, seems the stuff of English nightmares. But, thanks to a dream held by a Maori coach 21 years ago, it almost came true.
John Albert was coach of a tiny village team at Tihoi, "out the back of Taupo", when he set in motion a chain of events that would alter the 19-year-old Johnson's life forever.
"Our club had had a very strong side but when I went back there in 1987 there were no players left and the team was getting thrashed by everyone," Albert tells me.
"The native logging industry had been stopped by environmentalists, so there was no work. Everyone had left home. There were just a few farmers, bush-workers and hunters left, not enough for a team. Aussie boys wouldn't come over because all the good blokes were playing league and nobody else in New Zealand wanted to join us because we were bottom of the league.
Martin Johnson made his mark with Leicester Tigers after returning from New Zealand
"One day, I was reading a rugby magazine. There was a story in it about a schoolboy
tournament over in Australia that England had won and I began to wonder if a few of those boys might want to come over in their off-season."
"Colin thought it was a bit of a crazy idea," says Albert. "No-one had done anything like it before and there was a lot of negativity about importing overseas players. But I wrote a letter to the RFU and spoke on the phone to a woman there. I told her I'd buy her a bottle of wine if she could send that letter out to those lads from the school team." He pauses. "She did but I never followed through on that wine. I owe her an apology."
Johnson was not the first to be asked. Damian Hopley, future Wasps centre, almost said yes; Martin Bayfield, 31 caps for England at lock, had just joined the police force and was refused leave by his superiors. Garin Jenkins, who would go on to win a half-century of caps for Wales at hooker, was another to travel to New Zealand under Albert's auspices.
But it was Johnson, just out of Robert Smyth Upper School in Leicestershire, who first took up the offer - paying his own airfare in return for board, lodging and an eye-opening Kiwi rugby union schooling.
"We met him at the airport. We don't have too many tall guys round our area and he was pretty squashed up in my old car," remembers Albert. "He'd never been on New Zealand roads before, with all these huge logging trucks coming towards you on narrow roads, and he was ducking every time one came past. He kept saying he wanted to go to McDonalds but, being from the back blocks of Taupo, none of us had heard of it.
Johnson, fresh off the plane, straight out of Market Harborough, was in for a back-country baptism. "He arrived on the Friday, we had him playing on Saturday, and then we tried to get him drunk on Saturday night so he could get a good night's sleep," says Albert. "He stayed with my wife, Karen, and me, in our spare room. But we didn't have any beds big enough - I'm only 5ft 7in on my tip-toes - so we put two beds end-to-end.
"The changing facilities at the club were very basic. There were branches growing out of the goalposts and you had to chase cows, sheep and pigs off the field before the start. All the farmers and bush-workers would bust a gut to get down there. The matches were the highlight of the week, because the rest of it was all pig-hunting.
And what about Johnson? "We used to call him 'Pretty Boy'," said Albert. "Where he'd come from, I think things tended to be more gentlemanly. Out here, he was in a strange environment - the bush, the pigs, the women..."
Despite the culture shock, the teenager made an immediate impact on the field. If it was hard, he got stuck in. If it got nasty, he learned to go toe-to-toe.
"It was easy for me to pick him because we didn't have many players," says Albert. "Anyone over 6ft was a bloody good asset to us. The opposition players all wanted to show him how tough they were, to welcome him to New Zealand the old-fashioned way, but he could handle it. He took what was given. By the end, he was dishing it back, too."
Johnson was found a job on a farm. Soon he met two people who would have a profound impact on his life: Meads, the towering definition of a relentless hard-man forward; and a farmer's daughter named Kay, who would become first his girlfriend and then his wife.
'Pinetree' Meads accelerated Johnson's rugby education, instructing in the forward's dark arts like some second-row Severus Snape, hammering away at the rough edges until they were far, far rougher.
Pleased with the results, he called Johnson up to the King Country first XV. It was tougher yet. In Johnson's first match, against a touring Argentine side, Meads son Glynn, skipper of the side, stuck one of the opposition on a stretcher.
Off the pitch, Johnson worked on Kay's father's farm and was then given a job in a branch of the National Bank.
"Ah, my sweet little clerk of 6ft 8in!" remembers his old branch boss, Phil Taylor. "I was involved with the coaching set-up at King Country. Martin told us he wanted a collar-and-tie job - he'd had enough of labouring - so Colin gave me a call and I found him a job."
Johnson in action for the Lions on the tour of New Zealand in 1993
Didn't such a gargantuan, stern-faced giant behind the counter intimidate customers?
"My boss walked in one day," says Taylor. "You should have seen his face when he spotted the size of Martin. He looked at Martin, looked at me and I said: 'PR, boss, PR!'"
The characteristics that would define Johnson as player and coach were already visible in the fresh-faced, broad-shouldered teenager. "He was very focused on where he wanted to go and becoming the best he could possibly be," says Taylor. "He was very comfortable in who he was but he also knew what he wanted to be.
"I found myself fascinated by the strength of his commitment to the cause on the rugby pitch. For a youngster, he made quite an impact."
Johnson's form over two seasons for King Country in the second division of the national
championship began to get him noticed in swisher clubhouses and committee rooms.
With Meads urging him on, he accepted a call-up to the New Zealand under-21 team and made his debut against Australia, taking on another future second row great, John Eales, in a team that included Va'aiga Tuigamala and Blair Larsen.
"I would certainly have been honoured and proud to play for New Zealand had things worked out differently," Johnson wrote in his autobiography. "Representing the All Blacks is massive, bigger than playing for any other country."
Instead, his shoulder injured and Kay keen to see the world, he returned to the UK. Soon he was absorbed into the Leicester Tigers team that he would help define for the next decade; a few years later he won the first of his 84 senior England caps. When he came back to North Island, it was as a key part of the 1993 touring Lions squad.
Photos still exist of Johnson, future England captain, manager and World Cup winner, wearing the famous black kit, silver fern on his chest. Back in Tihoi, traces of the trip that nearly changed rugby history are much harder to find.
The old pitch is now planted with swedes, the pigs and sheep back just as they were before Johnson arrived. Only a sarcastic scribble of graffiti on a board nearby gives away the identity of the club's most famous son:
"WELCOME TO THE MARTIN JOHNSON STADIUM."