Rugby World Cup
Simon Barnes' Rugby World Cup heroes: Martin Johnson
Simon Barnes
September 7, 2015
England captain Martin Johnson lifts the Rugby World Cup
England captain Martin Johnson lifts the Rugby World Cup© Dave Rogers/Getty Images

Brisbane 2003, a few days before the quarterfinal of the Rugby World Cup. Press and players in the same hotel, an uncomfortable situation for both. The players felt haunted, the journos felt embarrassed.

So when I and a colleague found ourselves on the next table to Martin Johnson in the coffee-shop, we nodded and then averted our eyes as if we hated him. Johnno was busy, you see. He was playing with his baby daughter Molly. Making googoo faces and holding her up as if she was contesting a lineout. She wore a comely version of the famous Johnsonian monobrow.

It's not exactly surprising that a big man should have a gentle side, but it's always refreshing to witness it. Later I said to my colleague: "I've always been wary of Johnson. I'm never sure if he knows I said he had a Cro-Magnon brow-ridge."

"Of course he does. He checked it out with me for his autobiography."

"Oh good."

Later that evening he gave a press conference. I left quite certain that England would win the World Cup. You could find it, if you looked, in the quiet confidence of his words. It was there in the lines of that extraordinary face. He looked like an Aztec sculpture. One entitled "Victory". It was a face that knows what the real price of victory can be - and is prepared to pay it every time.

You can overstate the fearsome nature of Johnson. Graham Henry, New Zealand coach of the British & Irish Lions of 2001, famously said that he selected Johnson as captain - he's the only man to have captained the Lions for two tours - because he put the fear of God into the opposition at the coin-toss.

There was a time when Johnson got sucked into the smaller game. Like cricket, rugby is a game about individual duels in a team context; unlike cricket the nature of these personal duels is only really apparent to the players. Johnson had the tendency to prioritise his individual battle - with a scoreline reckoned in blood and bruises - over the team battle reckoned in points.

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This changed, though too slowly. Hence the Cro-Magnon jibe. But I was there when he showed the world that he had put such trivialities aside. This was England's match against South Africa at Twickenham in 2002.

South Africa went for a policy of cheap shots, hoping to take their opponents' eyes off the ball, get them red-carded and so exploit their own comparatively limited skills. A couple of years earlier it might have worked, especially if they targeted Johnson. On this occasion England won 53-3. I remember the South Africans jeering: the English players just pointed to the scoreboard.

That was another occasion on which I thought England could win the World Cup. It was part of a 12- month period in which the team were unbeatable. They specialised in very narrow wins, and it wasn't coincidence that they did so again and again.

In that same autumn series of 2002, they beat New Zealand 31-28 and Australia 32-31 at Twickenham. I thought that it was mad to play those two countries in World Cup warm-ups, but England won 15-13 in New Zealand and then beat Australia comparatively easily, 24-14.

That New Zealand game was a classic. England ended up with a six-man scrum and still held on. "What was going through your head at the time?" someone asked Johnson. He answered: "My spine."

In these ultra-tight matches leadership is an essential factor. But Johnson always rejected the idea of himself as a great leader. He was just a team man, he said. Someone has to toss the coin and shout the come-ons. Perhaps it's true and Johnson didn't have the gift of leadership. If not, he certainly brought out the gift of followship in all those around him.

England captain Martin Johnson lifts the Rugby World Cup
England captain Martin Johnson lifts the Rugby World Cup© Dave Rogers/Getty Images

Johnson's real gifts are too readily associated with his physical size: but that's daft. Rugby is full of enormous men, and very few of them win the World Cup. Very few of them win the respect and admiration of a bunch of complex, often violent, usually volatile men.

Johnson had that gift. He could do it with a glance, and had the physiognomy to make the most of it. Sir Clive Woodward, England's head coach during the great years, once told Johnson that he wasn't playing in the next match. How did that play, Clive? "He just gave me the eyebrows look and said 'fine'."

Johnson was so impressive as an on-field leader that people grew convinced he possessed a kind of magic. So he was made England manager in 2008 despite a complete lack of coaching experience. Inevitably this failed to translate to performance. It was a sad business, and one that culminated in the disaster of the 2011 World Cup.

What matters about Johnson is his playing years: above all, his captaincy of England in that golden period. In truth, his team were a little past their best for the tournament itself, but they got through their knock-out matches despite a close call again Wales and the need to play extra-time in the final.

Did Johnson's leadership make the difference in these last seconds? No one can ever answer that. But I can replay them any time I like. It began with a classic scuttling scrum-half run from Matt Dawson, one which left him under a ruck with seconds left to play. Johnson himself took the ball from the breakdown and ran straight into contact. Making no ground whatsoever. Stupid? Au contraire. It meant everything. It was the perfect example of what he and Woodward wanted from the team throughout tournament. Thinking Correctly Under Pressure. T-CUP.

Johnson made that additional play, despite the time-pressure, because he wanted the team's best passer -- Dawson -- to make the tournament's crucial pass. He wanted the pass to be perfect. And with Johnson now at the bottom of the ruck, Dawson was there to fizz the ball to Jonny Wilkinson and...

You know the rest. England won, and 15 instant legends left the field. Towering above them -- he being a man to whom towering comes naturally -- Martin Johnson.

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© Simon Barnes