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'Pretty Boy' Johnson and his All Blacks double-life

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Tom Fordyce | 05:19 UK time, Friday, 7 October 2011

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 in action for Leicester Tigers early on in his careerMartin 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."

Albert put the idea to his friend Colin Meads, All Black legend and chairman of King Country rugby. Would he offer to mentor the players?

"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."

Martin Johnson in action for the Lions in 1993Johnson 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:



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  • Comment number 1.

    A true legend of the of the best locks of all time.
    I just hope his mediocre days as a coach wont taint his legacy as a player.

  • Comment number 2.

    Fantastic blog, Tom.

  • Comment number 3.

    Great stuff, met Meads out with the 2005 Lions tour, he always said ''we taught him how to play''...great player, fantastic captain and super guy according to people he's played with..As a coach? Jury still out maybe..

  • Comment number 4.

    Good blog. Luckily for England that Johnson's then girlfriend (now wife) wanted to travel, or he would have probably played for the All Blacks (after his under 19 career as an All Black).

  • Comment number 5.

    Fantastic player!
    Okay manager so far, he has shown in fits and starts he could be just as good as a manager as he was a player.

    Really looking forward to all the games this weekend.

    COME ON ENGLAND!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Comment number 6.

    Fascinating blog, I never knew any of that.

  • Comment number 7.

    Great blog. Johnson was certainly the best English lock of many generations. I can't recall ever seeing him lose a lineout thrown to him, or lose the ball in contact. He always called the lineout to himself when the team were under pressure. He was immense as a player and leader, when his example was exemplary.

    Not sure that his current charges are in the same class as he was as a player, and whatever his strengths or weaknesses as a coach, he will have done everything he can to be the best coach so that the team are the best they can be.

    Colossus of a man, whose character matches his physique.

  • Comment number 8.

    Scoch ... you never knew he was a player?

  • Comment number 9.

    Was it Johnson's plan to have the England shirts coloured black? Do you reckon he really still wants to be a new Zealander and perhaps an All Black again?
    I shall be watching with inetrest to see if the red rose becomes a silver fern!

  • Comment number 10.

    Great blog Tom.

  • Comment number 11.

    I'm more of a football fan but, Martin Johnson is the greatest England captain ever, in any sport, bar none.

  • Comment number 12.

    "... hammering away at the rough edges until they were far, far rougher."

    Pure genius. Made me laugh out loud.

  • Comment number 13.

    I know the Tihoi ground well as I worked in Tihoi many years ago. Fearsome rugby team :-)

  • Comment number 14.

    I suppose the key unanswered question is...had MJ stayed in New Zealand and become an All Black, would they have won the World Cup before now?

    I've always admired Martin Johnson, though more as a player than as a coach. As the media and pundits have knifed every other possible England Coach over the past decade it's hard to know what else can be done so we are stuck with him for better or for worse. He doesn't strike you as a great intellectualizer of the game but I imagine that he still has a pretty good rugby brain stuck on those shoulders.

    To me, the best bit is that he's no PR smoothie and whilst he has time to talk to knowledgeable journalists, he doesn't seem to have that much time for the lightweight hacks who pop up at difficult moments looking for "an angle"! I loved the moment during the 2003 RWC when some some "gentleman of the press" asked him "are you going to take them on up front?" Johnson waited a full 5 seconds, using that "look" before replying "yes...we intend to push!"

  • Comment number 15.

    Excellent point, Anglophone. Although I could never understand why MJ was chosen... possibly to capture some of the aura of 2003 having sacked Clive Woodward.... but what a wonderful leader. McGeechan knew just what he was doing with The Lions. But as a coach I don't think that anyone is sure about him. If only Woodward had not been kicked out. The real problem seems to lie with RFU. Thy are supposed to administer the game in England and all we get are pathetic spats, resignations and the continuance of Rob Andrew. Follow the model of the ECB.

  • Comment number 16.

    He had a good teacher in Colin "Pinetree" Meades an ALL Black legend

  • Comment number 17.

    Makes sense now why England have so many New Zealanders playing for them now!!

  • Comment number 18.

    ya Steggsy...I agree...he should never have been selected as team manager. He had no experience and you dont want someones learning ground to be at the expense of the national team. He should have paid his dues and managed a few club teams firstly before making the big transition to National team.

  • Comment number 19.

    What a story. To think that Martin could have gone on to be capped for the All Blacks. You could make a film out of that! Its horrible to see the current players behaving so badly under his leadership.

    The players know the score and there is no excuse for sub standard behaviour.

    A Welsh man yes and Wales, England rivalry aside, it would be nice to see any Northern Hemisphere team do well but I don't think England are coming through that match with France.

  • Comment number 20.

    True legend of the sport. As a player second to none. As a coach well he's led England to their first six nations in 8 years which is an achievement in itself. As for the world cup before the tournament he set out a semi final berth as the minimum level of success he wanted to achieve and so it remains.

  • Comment number 21.

    A great player that knows what it takes to win a world cup on the field I hope the team do's him proud this weekend

  • Comment number 22.

    Tom, that's an absolutely brilliant story, written quite beautifully. Never knew Johnson's New Zealands ties, just shows the lengths some sportsmen have to go to make it to big-time.

    Brilliant stuff.

  • Comment number 23.

    'Pretty boy' - very good. Perhaps they should have called him shorty.

  • Comment number 24.

    "instructing in the forward's dark arts like some second-row Severus Snape"
    Absolutely brilliant!!

    Great blog!

  • Comment number 25.

    I think if anything what this exposes is the need for a harsh rugby education. Too many 'academies' tell young players there the next big thing and they believe it. Coziness does not make great rugby players.
    A heartening story of how great rugby players are forged on the anvil of cold muddy pitches and bleak changing rooms.

    As an aside I was interested to see that Tom Wood also chose to fly south. Perhaps a rugby 'Gap Year' should be considered a more useful development tool by the RFU than endless trivial age group matches.

  • Comment number 26.

    Having read Martin Johnson's autobiography and several other books about him, he was always going to come home to Leicester. His shoulder injury was nothing to do with his return, as he continued to play as soon as he got back!! 12 months later he got it sorted. He has yet to be proved as a great coach, but he knows how to win a World Cup better than most and especially knows how to beat the French!! He knows more about International Rugby than anyone commenting on this blog (including the author) and don't forget it took Clive Woodward years to mould a World Cup winning team, so GIVE HIM A BREAK !!!!

  • Comment number 27.

    Absolutely...I agree with myself! If the RFU and the media hadn't indulged in this witless mindset that England should win everything by 30 points at a canter then we wouldn't be in the position of wondering why the last man standing is a thoroughly decent man and great player, but a questionable coach...which is not the same as saying that he won't develop into a great coach!

    That being said, I stand full-square behind him now and I wish that others would too. This endless obsession with the "man who can wave a magic wand" and make England invincible is the world of nincompoops in Barbour jackets and members of the press who have their own duplicitous ends.

    So far, since the modern coach has emerged we have had

    Geoff Cook - turned England into winning force. Sacked for "not winning the right way" (it goes way back you see!)
    Jack Rowell - good coach but sacked for being "too amateur...gentleman rather than player who fancied his old side Bath too much!)
    Sir Clive - slow start but brought together the world cup winning mentality - sacked by RFU Blazeratti for losing some games when his best players had retired and being a bit too "pushy"
    Andy Robinson - good coach! Did his best with limited resources (as he continues to). Knifed by media for not "winning every game by 30 points"
    Brian Ashton - terribly nice old chap who did his best with limited resources given the state of the player pool. Sacked under media pressure for a white knight, despite reaching world cup final. He has a right to be bitter!

    The White Knight, the media's choice, is with us now and, unsurprisingly, England still don't win every game by 30 points at a canter. The same folk who agitated and knifed to get him the job are after his head now and, if England lose tomorrow, they may well get it. Let's hope not!

    Martin Johnson is where we have ended up after two decades of sniping and bloodletting. Just let him get on with it because he's already Plan F and I don't know who the main candidate for Plan G would be?

  • Comment number 28.

    Anglophone (no 27), couldn't agree more with what you said, but Clive Woodward left the England Job, as he acheived what he wanted to and didn't have the fire in his belly to continue anymore, he wasn't sacked. Which ironically is why the English team have struggled to find direction since.

  • Comment number 29.

    I dont think he has stood out as a coach, but as most people seem to be inferring, I dont think we blame HIM for not being a top drawer coach.

    He was hired with no experience, straight into the Engalnd job, actually just thinking about it now it sounds pretty mental, imagine Alan Shearer being england coach 3 years after retiring....

    I think it says a lot about the man that he has done as well as he has so far, in a very difficult job. I do think that part of the rationale was that he was first of all keen for the job, and I think those up high in the boardroom selected him for "Legend Inspiration" factor as much as anything else.

    He is conservative in his approach, but I am not toooo dissatisfied with him thus far, I think if we make it to the semi finals in a Six Nations winning year, then we shouldnt be too critical?

    Either way, as is unanimously agreed, he is quite a legend.

  • Comment number 30.

    Excellent tale, thank you.

  • Comment number 31.

    Good blog as ever Tom.
    When assessing Johnson’s credentials as Head Coach I would make the following observations.
    I remember watching the 2007 World Cup and Johnson’s insight into the games was second to none. Many times I was sitting there and he would be able to sum up perfectly the game I was watching in a couple of sentences and make more sense than everyone else put together.
    There seems to be a common conception that Clive Woodward = Great Coach, Martin Johnson = Poor Coach. I would not underestimate the influence that Woodward had in making the overall England set up more professional. However it should be remembered that England were knocked out in the ¼ Final in 1999. In 2003 Woodward was coach of one of the all time great teams. If you look at that team it a number of truly great players, Johnson, Hill, Dallaglio Wilkinson, Robinson, one of the best front rows ever assembled in Woodman, Thompson & Vickery (before injuries) and then a number of very fine experienced players, Back, Dawson, Greenwood. It is always easier to be a great coach when you have the best players.
    Johnson is not blessed with such a stellar set of players. It would be hard to make a case for any of the current players over any of the players in that 2003 team. In addition to that England at the moment simply don’t have an international quality out and out 7 or 12 available. It’s not that Johnson isn’t picking them it’s that there are none currently around in English rugby. We are particularly hamstrung by the absence of a true 7. The most noticeable aspect of this year’s World Cup is pre-eminence of the openside – Roussou, Warburton, Pocock, O Brien.
    I do not agree with everything Johnson as done but I do believe he should carry on after the World Cup regardless of the result on Saturday.

  • Comment number 32.

    ALex Cricket. You hit the nail on the head. Academies have their place but there is nothing like the "mud and cold" to get a perspective of this game and what it means to people. The gap year idea you propose would benefit UK player sin almost all sports.

  • Comment number 33.

    28 Forestcuba

    You can never really tell can you, but the impression that I got was that SCW was more than a bit miffed that the RFU hadn't made any plans for maintaining England's momentum post-2003, save perhaps for the ringing of cash tills as the exhausted senior player cadre were ground into the dust in money-spinning "test matches".

    He asked for more senior squad time, that the clubs resisted, and the RFU, anxious not to derail the gravy train, didn't back him. It was one of those semantic differences between "resigning" and "being resigned!"

    It's noticeable that he has resisted attempts to bring him back. Possibly because it might tarnish his own legend, or possibly because he understands that squaring the circle between the RFU and the public/pundits expectations simply isn't possible. He wouldn't want to be "resigned" again I suspect!

  • Comment number 34.

    #12 Nayim, So so so so so right. Tom you've nailed it again, great blog.

    Welsh fan here in peace! Johnno isn't in charge of a finishing school, he's in charge of a rugby team, his first responsibility is to results on the pitch. He's won the 6 nations, he's about to grind out a horrifically ugly game against France, after which he's probably going to grind out a horrifically ugly win against us or ireland to reach the final.

    What a terrible coach??? No he's a winner, and he doesn't give a monkeys whether you like the way it's done.

  • Comment number 35.

    Anglophone: NIce analysis of the core problem at the RFU. They look now like the ECB "gin and tonic" crowd that Ian Botham complained about in his days.

    I would add that while Woodward may get up some people's noses, without him the RWC would not have come North. Don't forget he had experience of the Antipodean system and brought the lessons back. Without him we would have had more yeoman effort but not actually have understood the intangibles. His role was as much CEO as coach and he got knifed by people who thought he was getting too big for his boots.

    I will disagree with you on AR though. He was a decent position coach under an effective team manager, but is grossly out of his depth now. His two international gigs make ugly reading and both his teams lost and continue to lose in frustrating fashion, employing one trick pony game plans. Talent pool notwithstanding the guy just hasn't got it.

  • Comment number 36.

    I do believe whatever happens this world cup MJ needs to start again with this team, and get some of the young new players such as Farrel,Barrit,Sharples, Ben Nutley, Callum Clark to name but a few and get them playing test rugby as soon as possible if they fail they fail and another one takes up the mantle, its tough but it works.

  • Comment number 37.

    Welshfan here and I also come in peace, but if he's got in wrong on Flood and I strongly suspect he has then he'll have to go for that alone. Brought an England shoo in firmly back into the balance for me...

  • Comment number 38.


    "save perhaps for the ringing of cash tills as the exhausted senior player cadre were ground into the dust in money-spinning "test matches".

    I remember well the period where we played an absurd series in NZ and Australia. When the lads should have been recuperating and so on we went on a meaningless and ultimately damaging tour. Instead of leaving the All Blacks and Wallabies seething and stewing in their own juice for a year, we let them have another go at us and we have heard the "See! Told you so! You were just lucky!" comments from almost all corners ever since.

  • Comment number 39.

    As a Welshman got to take my hat of to Johnno. Absolute hero of the game and the type of player you would always rather on your team than against you. Think he will eventually prove his pedigree as a manager with a similar, uncompromising approach to Warren Gatland.

    If Wales go out I 'll definitely support his team but wish his players would take a leaf out of his book when it comes to attitude and commitment as they look like a bunch of teenage girls from the outside at the moment. Good luck tomorrow though - England v Wales semi would be amazing!

  • Comment number 40.

    Steggsy - Woodward wasn't sacked, he resigned.

  • Comment number 41.

    It's not just the going abroad bit that is of significance, (although it obviously is). Also important is the jump from aged group rugby to senior rugby.

    At 19 Johnson was obviously already big, but having only largely played aged group rugby he had not competed regularly against grown men. At that stage, (and even still now), there are not many 19 year old forwards who are thrown into the starting XV at senior clubs in England, (never mind about starting every week).

    I had a similar choice, (at a similar time), when asked to play for Saracens U21's while playing for the 1st team for a local junior club. The general concensus of those that I asked, was that although I might have better opportunity for future development at a club like Saracens, as an 18/19/20 year old I was going to be playing a higher standard of rugby at my junior clubs 1st XV than I was playing with similar aged players for Saracens U21's.

    I was playing against grown men and it is that sort of physical development that you just don't don't get in aged group rugby.

    Looking back now, I do laugh a little because I obviously never made it to the big-time and the player that Saracens wanted me to replace, (because they thought him particularly poor defensively), was none other than Darren O'Leary, (who was soon shipped off to start a glorious career at Quins).

    Maybe that just indicates that there is more than one route to the top.

  • Comment number 42.

    I think rugby in england is structured towards the clubs which means MJ just does not have the time and influence with the players that other nations who have the players contracted to the union have.this gives us a fantastic Premiership but impacts on England as a team which with the player base and money available we should be a more dare i say it attractive side.
    I think that might be 1 of the reasons why CW left?

  • Comment number 43.

    Interesting blog Tom, much improved writing. Sorry to hear about the BBC cuts.

  • Comment number 44.

    Agreed if England lose to this dreadful French side...people will look at the selection at 10,12 and I think that could be the end of Johnsons mediocre career as a manager.

  • Comment number 45.

    I'm all for starting a petition to keep Tom Fordyce at the Beeb. I can think of another "writer" of these blogs who could do with seeking opportunities elsewhere though! Possibly at S4C or RTE.

    Great blog though...different league!

  • Comment number 46.

    @31 O'Brien's no openside. He played at 6 when Ferris was injured and Wallace was fit. I'd also say that the players you mentioned that're legends of the England 2003 team...they weren't legends before that tournament. Neither was Clive Woodward for that matter. It was at that tournament that they wrote their own legendary status into existence.

    As an Ireland fan, I'm hoping youse lot don't manage it this time. But if youse do win, I'm pretty sure the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and my favourite England player, Tom Croft, will probably end up being spoken of in the same breath as Greenwood, Wilkinson, Vickery, Johnson and the rest. Well, not Johnson, if he wins the RWC as a player and a manager I think he'll probably be in a field all of his own!

  • Comment number 47.

    Good players dont necessarily make great coaches and vice versa.
    Why not leave MJ alone. He has plenty to deal with just handling off the field antics. I think that there are parts of the media that like him to flare up on live tv. Give the guy a break. He was a great player and needs time now to establish himself as a coach in his early forties. He does not have the team of 2003, so put that aside too. Go for it MJ.

  • Comment number 48.

    if they called him pretty boy I hate to think how ugly the others were..... great player and captain lets hope he can continue in that way as manager....

  • Comment number 49.

    Great Tom, nothing new but very well written.

    Martin Johnson is a colossus of a man, as a player, captain and coach. He is (very successfully) building a young, talented and committed team that is competing in the current world cup and will be ready for anything in another 4 years.

    Swing low, come on England!

  • Comment number 50.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 51.

    Martin Johnson's a fantastic coach. All of the senior players seem sincere in their praise of him and his methods, and more importantly, they've been successful! Under his guidance, England've beaten Tri-Nations opposition away and they're 6N champions, what more do you want?

    It's as if he'll never be good enough until they win the RWC, which is nonsense. Only one team can win the RWC every four years. The All Blacks haven't won it since 1987; would anyone dare to suggest that they haven't been good enough? England fans're spoilt brats sometimes, if you'll forgive the generalisation.

  • Comment number 52.

    @50 I see Croft in every game, he's got pace to burn, he runs great support lines, he's got an excellent offload game and he's the go-to guy at the lineout. I really came to appreciate him on the Lions' tour, where I think he pushed Jamie Roberts for man of the series. I was so gutted when Ferris got injured, but thanks to Croft I barely missed him!

    Johnson and Hill had Lions pedigree, they didn't need to win the RWC to cement their place, they'd already done it in 1997. Vickery, Wilkinson and Dallaglio owe their status to winning that tournament though, at least in my mind.

    I'll give you a theoretical example of what I'm chatting about. If Ireland don't win the RWC this year, BOD and POC will be remembered as legends. If they DO win (and I don't mean to mention it, hope I'm not jinxing anything!), so will Cian Healy, Donncha O'Callaghan, Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris, Keith Earls, Ronan O'Gara etc. You see my point? The mere fact of winning the thing elevates players.

  • Comment number 53.

    @50 Dunno what that was pulled for, what a disgrace!

  • Comment number 54.


    May the gods of rugby strike you down! ;-)

    Good luck tomorrow!

  • Comment number 55.

    @52 – I think we agree pretty much (though I would probably add Dallaglio’s name to the list of those not requiring to win a World Cup). Overall though the fact that England won the 2003 World Cup and this team probably won’t does not necessarily make Woodward an amazing coach & Johnson a poor coach.
    Btw – you read my post – can you think of any earthly reason why it was removed?

  • Comment number 56.

    33 Anglophone.

    I think it was for a number of different reasons that he walked away, bureaucracy being one of them. I know that when Dallaglio decided to retire from England, the first time (to sort out his personal life!!), it coincided with Woodward leaving. In fact they both had a meeting saying.... I need to tell you something.... I'm retiring from England duty!!

    Woodward was so focused on winning the World Cup, he didn't make any plans for what came after that and was a victim of his own success. Andy Robinson was always on for a hiding to nothing and has proved he just doesn't quite have what it takes to make a successful team and I can't see him making a success of Scotland, until they learn how to score tries !!!

    I think we need to stick with Johnson, like we did with Woodward and with the depth of talent we have in this country, we will a supreme Rugby force leading into the next World Cup.

    But just to clarify, Woodward left of his own volition, he wasn't sacked!

  • Comment number 57.

    A great player, great coach and great man. He's proven himself in coaching by winning the 6 nations - the first time we have as a country in many years. If we can beat France tomorrow it'll be a successful world cup - as this years competition will prob belong to New Zealand

  • Comment number 58.

    My favourite Martin Johnson response to a journalist, when asked what was going through his head, as a 7 man English scrum resisted the shove of an All Black 8 on the 5 metre line in the last few minutes of the game in Eden Park, a few months before before the 2003 World Cup was, my 1st, 2nd and 3rd vertebrae. They Probably were.

  • Comment number 59.

    Lovely piece Tom, a wonderful story -- like many on here, was not aware of the back story but a great illustration of what rugby does to make the world a better place

  • Comment number 60.

    @58 - Yeah that was a very appropriate comment from Johnno. The defence of the England line (especially with a man in the sin bin) was amazing. No penalties were conceded either. I still can't believe that we managed to hold out.

  • Comment number 61.

    56 Forestcuba

    Let's agree to agree on what we can agree on! Johnson must stay and be given decent support towards 2015! I think we can agree on that?

  • Comment number 62.

    If only Phil McNulty could write one blog post like this..

  • Comment number 63.

    @ 56 - re comments on Andy Robinson. I have to agree Robinson was on a hiding to nothing when he took over. Robinson is a good coach, but maybe not a good team manager. I think what he lacked in the England job was a Jo Maso type character as Team Manager/Technical director to help him. The RFU brought in Rob Andrew probably a year too late to help him out.

    I think he's done a decent job with Scotland. But the whole lack of try scoring thing must do his head in. If Scotland do let him go and there is a post-world cup shake up in the England set up, then I hope Robinson maybe offered a post back in the England coaching fold.

  • Comment number 64.

    All the people who are questioning MJ's ability to coach seem to have forgotten he is learning!

    He took on the role with no previous experience as a coach! None! It's not overly surprising he has made a few questionable decisions.

    Give him a break, I have faith he will develop into a great England manager.

  • Comment number 65.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 66.


    Good blog. Interesting that you put a picture of Martin Johnson on the 1993 Lions tour. I went to Twickers and saw Johnson make his debut in January 1993. It was obvious even then that he was a test level player. He came in as a late replcement for Wade Dooley who was injured.

    Then "genius" McGeechan picked the 1993 Lions squad and did not pick Johnson for the squad!! (He did not pick Jeff Probyn either, but that is another story). Of course he had room in his squad for Damian Cronin and Andy Reed, who were simply abject. Then Dooley had to go home for his father's funeral and because of an absurd procedure was not allowed back on the tour. Johnson was called out and promptly walked into the test team for the final 2 tests against the All Blacks.

  • Comment number 67.

    An excellent blog, clearly explaining why Martin Johnson excelled as a player.

    I wonder, has Martin Johnson not reached the same heights as a coach/manager as he did as a player because he still sees himself as 'one of the lads' and not a manager? Don't give the media any excuse to talk about activities off the field. It's all about perceptions and these lucky people are representing the country. Keep the discipline tight and enforced and the results on the pitch will follow.

  • Comment number 68.

    Yes Mr Anglophone, we can definitely agree on Martin Johnson being the way forward !!

    @63 I can't see Robinson leaving the Scottish set up for a few years, unless he is forced out and considering he has just recently signed a lengthy contract, I can't see that happening anytime soon. Besides we want Scotland to be useless and Andy Robinson is keeping all England Rugby fans happy in helping Scotland to stay the weakest of the Home Nations. I hope he stays there for another 10 years !!!! He is a good coach, but a National Manager he isn't. A bit like Brian Ashton really.

  • Comment number 69.

    Let's see how Martin Johnson's boys fare this weekend. Here's my preview on that along with the other quarter clashes...

  • Comment number 70.

    @ 60 and 58,

    That perfomance from England that day (and i think it was in wellington btw as NZ have not lost at Eden Prk since well before then) was one of the most remarkable defensive displays I have ever seen and JW goalkicking was superb in a swirling gale. That win gave them the confidence to go on and win the WC.

    Sadly for england they do not have any great victories like thta one or long winning sequences to draw on this time around.

  • Comment number 71.

    #34 - well said mate! I have been gobsmacked over the last couple of weeks of blogging about some people's attitude to Eng 'must win in an attractive way' and 'with a healthy margin' etc etc. You dont need a healthy margin to win a game (3 points 2003 RWC final anyone???), you need a single point to seal the deal. Big, healthy margins give us a sense of comfort, but I think I'd rather take the win before the margin and the style anyday.

    RESULTS are what get respect and what gets teams remembered in the corridors of history...and as far as I can see, Johnno is getting the results fine...

  • Comment number 72.

    #70 Doris...what are you talking about?! It might not be Fortress Twickenham at the moment, but check out the last 12 months of results....yes, there have been a couple of losses in there, but overall the hit rate for the last year has not been bad...

  • Comment number 73.

    @68 - Ditto the comment about Brian Ashton. Another good coach, but not a national manager. Looking back its interesting that Woodward put together a great coaching team during his tenure, but the individual coaches didn't quite do the business as national managers in their own right. I also include Kiwi John Mitchell in that group. Who was an England assistant coach until 2001. And managed the All Blacks from 2002 until after the 2003 World cup.

  • Comment number 74.

    @58, 60 & 70 - Everyone remembers the 2 scrums on the English goal line defended with 13 players and hail a magnificent defensive display on the night. Few people mention what happened next. England ran the ball pretty much from their own line (with 13 players remember) and nearly scored a try at the opposite end. It showed a team totally confident in each other’s own abilities. The following week we went to Australia and gave them a right old thumping (the score didn’t really reflect the gulf between the two teams). (Btw - Doris is right – game was in Wellington not Auckland).
    Anyone dare for predictions for weekends games. For what it’s worth
    France by 3 to 7
    Ireland by 3 to 7
    South Africa by 7 to 10
    New Zealand by 10 to 15.
    I hope I’m wrong with every prediction.

  • Comment number 75.

    Seems like people are pretty harsh on Johnson's coaching. Perhaps I have to remind people that England actually did WIN the 2001 Six Nations....scoring the most tries and with a massive points difference....almost double that of second place Ireland. Ok, they lost to Ireland in the last game. But then so did a pretty good England team in 2001......

  • Comment number 76.

    67 Renevincente

    " Don't give the media any excuse to talk about activities off the field."

    I don't think that England player's apparent travails are anything at all to do with Martin Johnson "wanting to be one of the boys!" They have absolutely everything to do with the kind of people who want to buy muck-raking tabloids or the curtain-twitchers who buy the Daily Mail (England player swears on pitch! No less!).

    England are uniquely afflicted by these brain-dead publications and their search for anything, half-true or totally invented, around which they can weave yet another synthetic scandal!

    Don't forget, these people were happy to crater England's chances of hosting the Football World Cup, at a loss of £3bn to the economy, so cr**ing all over our rugby teams chances is small beer!

  • Comment number 77.

    Johnno is a playing legend.

    I really hope that his legacy is not ruined by Rob Andrew giving him a job that he was not ready for.

    If i remember rightly Julian White and Tom Wood have also played provincial rugby in New Zealand.

  • Comment number 78.

    Very good piece, Tom.

    As for all the posters doubting Johnson's credentials as a coach....history may prove you right, but it may not. He's a rookie - he's only been doing the job for 3 years. As others have pointed out here, Woodward took a while to bed in, and (forgive the excursion to the dark side) it took Ferguson donkey's years to win anything at ManU. I hope Johnson does enough in the next few weeks, and the next 4 years, to ensure he's still the boss in 2015. I'd rather judge him on that.

  • Comment number 79.

    @73 Spot on about Mitchell, having said that being the New Zealand Manager must be the most pressurised job in Rugby. I'm not surprised he didn't last long, because they failed in the 2003 World Cup, even though he had a pretty good record apart from that. I'm amazed Henry has lasted this long.

    Besides all that, if the sheep says we'll beat the French, who am I to argue!!?

  • Comment number 80.

    The press are always gunning for the coach. In 1999, Woodward actually said "judge me by our performance in the World Cup." England were easily beaten by the All Blacks in the group game and then lost by 20 points in the 1/4 to South Africa.

    The press was baying for blood but they stuck with Woodward and four years later they won the WCUP, hitting a purple patch where the beat everyone in 2002-03.

  • Comment number 81.

    I know of least one young English prop who is going through the NZ rugby system at the moment and his game has improved vastly to what I suspect it would have done if he was developing here in the UK. (Mike Cron guidance amongst others has helped!) Having played for one of the top 4 NZ schools he is now playing NZ University rugby and has already representated NZ University U21's on tour to the US. Hope the RFU dont miss out on assessing him for the Red Rose in due course! The structure of developing rugby players in NZ and notably Canterbury is years ahead to what Ive experienced personally here in England. We could learn a lot from it for the future of the English game.

  • Comment number 82.

    @46 JamesMatthew
    Have you ever coached an national side? I doubt it. Have you played at any great representative level, again I doubt it. So what gives you the right to pass judgement on Johnson's managerial career as mediocre? First Six Nations title in ( I think someone above posted) 8 years. Seems not bad, World Cup Quarter final, topped their pool and all for someone with no managerial experience. Someone who, I seem to recall, said he was not ready for the job, but being the man he is he took on the task because his sport asked him to do his best for his country. In what way is any of that "mediocre"?
    No idea where you are from or what your grievance is but you need to look at what mediocre means and I suggest it applies more accurately to someone else rather than the England Team Manager.

    Good Luck to England and Wales tomorrow.

  • Comment number 83.

    Excellent blog! Johnson will always be an English legend. Would he have been an All Blacks legend?

    On another note, did I read it write that the best writer BBC Sports has is leaving? If not of his own accord, that's a disgrace when there are much worse writers who deserve that fate. (McNulty anyone?).

  • Comment number 84.

    Great blog tom,

    Martin Johnson was one of the best locks of all time. Every generation has a player that makes you stand up and take notice, MJ was one of them. It's no surprise really that he learned part of his trade in NZ, because there was something about Johnson that was different to the rest.

    Great captain, leader, professional, Thank god he came home!

  • Comment number 85.

    Great writing Tom - worthy of the battle bus days of legend.

    I've probably got tunnel vision, but not only do I think that MJ was a great England captain (by far the best in my lifetime, and I'm over 50), but I also think that he's on his way to becoming a great coach; everybody forgets that the England team was a bloody shambles between 2004 and 2009 (incl: the 2007 RWC, where if it had not been for a player's revolt we would have left after the Australia game in humiliation); suddenly we are Six Nations champions again and in with a real shout at this RWC, and there is no reason why we cannot make the final and win it. That's down to MJ - the sight of him in the changing rooms at half-time against the Scots was what his appointment was all about. When Sean Fitzpatrick (no mug in these matters) said that he "looked like the captain", he knew exactly what he was saying. This could yet be another MJ RWC success.

  • Comment number 86.

    @82 Gavin Bewick

    Well said mate!

    I hate it when people criticise MJ managerial career, these people are so fickle. He's only been managing for what, 4 years? How can one say there career is mediocre 4 years into it? As you rightly said first 6 nations title in ages, we have won our group, and even though we are not playing fantastic rugby at the moment, we are playing effective rugby, MJ is a winner, its in his blood, so if anyone will turn these players into winners its Johnson.
    Worth mentioning that as many as 10 players are making there world cup debuts as well, give this side 4 years and we will be dangerous I'm sure!

  • Comment number 87.

    Absolutely fantastic blog, really insightful.

    Johnson is an absolute legend of the game, great player and world class captain. Although the jury is still out on his coaching abilities I think it's worth noting that he has led us to our first 6 nations title in 8 years and 4 out of 4 this world cup, maybe it's time to judge him after the world cup rather than judging coaches before they have even done their job like we do in football?

  • Comment number 88.

    really interesting blog, thank you for insights like these. keep it coming

  • Comment number 89.

    LOL - "Pretty Boy"!

    Looks like the Maoris have a highly-tuned sense of irony...

  • Comment number 90.

    I read this story in the Telegraph about a month ago. Good steal.

  • Comment number 91.

    Apparently his nickname with his England team mates was "Ferringhi" after the race in Star Trek...can't think why

  • Comment number 92.

    Fantastic blog Tom, what a fantastic player Martin was and a great Girtonian male you are.

  • Comment number 93.

    We keep hearing negatives about England's coaching set-up, from writers and fans alike. I for one think that the England coaches have performed incredibly well with a team and talent pool that is distinctly lacking in talent.
    I challenge anyone to name an England player good enough to make the Welsh or Irish team. Yet with a mixture of retreads and a couple of talented but unproven youngsters MJ and his staff manage to play those teams on equal terms and sometimes beat them.
    Leaving out Argentina can anyone name an England player that would make the starting team on any of the other six quarter finalists?

  • Comment number 94.

    The one thing I have observed over his career is that Johnson is a winner. He might not get it right first time round but who does, very few, but he is a winner and he will work it out!

  • Comment number 95.


    It was in Wellington but what a night that was and I'm a Kiwi

  • Comment number 96.

    Excellent blog Phil, I happened to be driving through "Pinetrees" town of Te Kuiti (some obscure place in the middle of nowhere) yesterday en route to New Plymouth and was fascinated with the fact that they advertise "meet and greet" opportunities to talk Rugby with the 75 year old legend in the Main wonder they have renamed the town to "Meadsville" and no wonder that he had such an influence on Martin Johnson's career. If he can win RWC 2011 he would surely also warrant "legend" status

  • Comment number 97.

    Jimbo1942, Runningnumber8,

    It was Wellington, and it was a 6 man scrum with Back and Dallaglio in the bin, great test match between two great teams.

    Nice blog.

  • Comment number 98.


    Yep you are correct. It was fantastic the other thing I remember is that Howletts try nearing the end. The pass that put the ball out to Howlett was so far forward it was a joke. Still I 'm one to moan about forward passes :)

  • Comment number 99.

    Well said Gavin

    James give it a rest please your WUMing everything is getting soooooooo tiresome

  • Comment number 100.

    Great blog Tom as so many have said.

    MJ for those over here who are in the "know" have always looked at MJ as the one that "got away". There is no doubt in my mind that he would have become an All Black legend had he stayed. But as someone else said my understanding was he was always going back to England.

    He was a great player and great captain and is a top bloke. It always makes me laugh the stereotype banded about by the lets not support England mob that England rugby players are all toffs. I do not think that has been the case for 20 years for the most part. MJ is so anti-that stereotype it's not funny.

    If fact in my experience and I have been involved in Rugby in England Scotland and Australia the last two countries have in fact be based around which School you have attended. And before all you Scots and Ozzies get on here bleating I said it was my experience not written in stone.

    I think England would be crazy if they sack MJ whatever the outcome of today is. He may not be the most eloquent speaker in the world but when he speaks most sensible people listen.

    Good luck England (go the Blacks) as for the Welsh and Irish it is a shame you meet in the QFs

    but good luck to you both


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