England’s World-Cup winning captain and twice a Lions captain, ‘Johnno’ is up in the top 10 of professional rugby’s all-time greats.
As fearsome a forehead as you could imagine contains within one of rugby’s most pragmatic brains, one which, as if to exemplify how simple rugby can still be, answered the question “what was going through your mind at that scrum” with the words “my spine”.
His no-nonsense analysis is a TV favourite during Six Nations time and he remains perhaps the best lock England has ever had.
Born into a sporting family, Johnson quickly got into rugby but it didn’t hold him down; indeed, he had already made a small pathway for himself in American Football for the Leicester Panthers.
But his progress at Market Harborough had caught the eye of Leicester, who took him in. During his first year there, he was approached by All Black great Colin Meads to go and play Down Under, where Johnson did so well he was picked for the New Zealand U21 team – and he also met his wife.
He could have been lost to England – by his own admission, by the age of 20 he’d played more games for the Baby Blacks than for Leicester and was an option for New Zealand. But he wanted to see home again and his wife was happy to go exploring in the world, so home he came.
Once home, he was held up for a while by a shoulder injury, which by his own admission was a blessing in terms of freshening him up. Once fit again, he wasted no time establishing himself in the Leicester second-row.
He claimed his first piece of silverware in 1993, winning the Pilkington Cup and scoring a try in the process. In 1995, he captained the team for the first time as a stand-in for the injured Dean Richards, and he won his first Premiership as well. That year he signed his first professional contract, giving up his job at a bank in the process, but the following years were more defined by near misses, such as a lost Heineken Cup final, a last-day defeat to lose the Premiership and a Pilkington Cup final defeat.
By 2000 though, with Richards retired and Johnson firmly entrenched as captain, Leicester were nigh unstoppable, winning four Premierships in a row and back-to-back Heineken Cups as well.
The team faded thereafter and has never quite hit the heights since. Johnson’s retirement in 2005, after a losing Premiership final, was seen by many as the end of the entire era at Leicester.
He made an England debut in 1993 against France and then was called up to the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand as a replacement, where he really made his international mark in the final two Tests.
By the 1995 World Cup he was a regular in the England team.
In 1997, he was Ian McGeechan’s surprise choice as the Lions captain, despite having never led England, but the tour under the pair’s stewardship was seen as a tremendous success.
He was eventually made captain of England in 1999, taking the armband from Lawrence Dallaglio who had been subjected to a newspaper scandal.
Fierce leader ✅
Rugby World Cup winner ✅
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 10, 2019
He was the leader of the Lions again in 2001 in Australia, while the England team continued to hit new heights. His display in New Zealand in June 2003 was hailed by long-time opponent John Eales as one of the all-time great international locking displays – including winning a scrum against the head when England had only six forwards to New Zealand’s eight (see quote above).
Not only was he captain of the World Cup-winning team, but a largely unheralded ball-carry in the phase before the winning drop goal, after he had noticed England had no scrum-half to deliver the ball to Jonny Wilkinson, was seen as the perfect example of how well he could read the game.
He met his wife Kay while in New Zealand and they have two children, Molly and Henry. His brother Will was a team-mate at Leicester for almost 200 matches.
Johnson does well both from his punditry and after-dinner engagements where he is in high demand on the corporate circuit.