The greatest Lions: Martin Johnson

Date published: April 19 2017

In a series building up to the 2017 tour to New Zealand, we remember some of the greatest players to ever wear the Lions jersey.

Next up is the surprise Lions captaincy choice from 1997 who went on to become a legend, the exceptional second-row Martin Johnson.

What stands out about Johnson even to this day is his presence. Even in the dark final days of his time in charge of England, the return from New Zealand and consequent resignation as England head coach long after Johnson had hung his boots up, ‘Johnno’ still had that look of a man whose camp you would much rather be in than watching from the outside.

That trait as a player won him countless admirers be it with Leicester, England or the British and Irish Lions, with Johnson representing the latter on the 1993, 1997 and 2001 tours.

The raw numbers tell you that Johnson played in eight Tests and started in all of them, winning four, losing four, including one series out of three against South Africa in 1997.

There is so much more however to his Lions story. There have been a number of great Lions captains, and he sits right near the top. A player who some forget could have played for New Zealand, according to the great Sir Colin Meads who watched him play for New Zealand Colts against Australia.

“If he stays, he’s a definite to become an All Black.”

Going back to 1993, Johnson had made his England debut earlier that year in the Six Nations as a late call-up for the injured Wade Dooley. A few months later Johnson was again replacing Dooley, this time after the ‘Blackpool Tower’ had returned home for his father’s funeral, except this time for the Lions instead of England.

Johnson has been in Canada on an England ‘A’ tour when he received the news and made the trip to New Zealand, but instead of simply arriving to take up a slot on the bench or in the squad, he started in the second Test.

The Lions won 20-7 in Wellington, the points made up of a Rory Underwood try to go with four Gavin Hastings’ penalties and a drop goal from Rob Andrew. Johnson had started in a nearly all-English pack, save for the Ireland loosehead Nick Popplewell.

Having narrowly lost the first Test but won the second, hopes were high for a first series win in New Zealand since 1971. The All Blacks however came good, inflicting a 30-13 victory on the tourists and taking the series with it.

Fast forward four years and Johnson was a mainstay of the England pack, having won a Grand Slam and featured in his first Rugby World Cup in 1995.

He had no captaincy experience at international level and yet Fran Cotton, the 1997 Lions tour manager, wanted an abrasive leadership figure to stand up to South Africa’s captain, Gary Teichmann. He was chosen for his actions more than his words. At 201cm, few looked down on him. Yet looking back there was no denying Johnson was somewhat of a gamble.

The series is fondly remembered for a number for moments; Jim Telfer’s “Everest” speech, Matt Dawson’s dummy in Cape Town, and of course Jeremy Guscott’s series-clinching drop goal in Durban.

Behind all that was Johnson, leading the way through his work-ethic and speaking when the time was right. Not that Johnson would necessarily accept all the praise coming his way.

“People say ‘Oh you were a great captain’, but I wasn’t a great captain in 1997. We had a really good bunch of players, a really good bunch of senior players. Guys put their disappointment of not necessarily being in the Test team behind them. We all won that series,” he told Total Rugby.

“Unity. You have to be together. You could be unlucky, go on that tour and injure yourself or not get many chances and then jump in during the third Test. You need that togetherness, for guys to keep their spirits up.

“John Bentley and Austin Healey in 1997… you need guys to make it fun. It is hard work, but you have to enjoy each other’s company. That is the joy of team sport.”

The mantra of the collective being greater than the whole led to a 2-1 win over South Africa in 1997, and Johnson’s reputation as one of the world’s premier locks was cemented. He was physical, but also intelligent.

Four years on the Lions turned to Johnson again, this time to lead the party against Australia. This was a historic moment given no player previously had been picked to captain the Lions on two separate tours.

The timeline four years on was drastically different. Australia were Rugby World Cup champions from 1999, packed with talent including the triumvirate of George Gregan, Stephen Larkham and Joe Roff, and heavy favourites not least after the Lions had lost to Australia ‘A’.

Featuring a young Brian O’Driscoll at outside centre and buoyed by a huge number of travelling fans the Lions sprung an upset at The Gabba, scoring four tries to win 29-13.

Fast forward to Melbourne and with the Lions up 11-3 by half-time a second straight series win was in sight. To general surprise the Wallabies won the second half 29-3, levelling the series.

Even in the final Test in Sydney, with the Lions down 29-23 with two minutes left there was still a chance to win the series, with a lineout ten metres from the line. The throw to the front, from Keith Wood to Johnson, was stolen by the Wallaby lock Justin Harrison on his Test debut, and described in the build-up as a “plod” by Austin Healey.

Had Johnson caught that ball and the Lions scored to win the series, then he might be regarded as the greatest Lion, period.

He wrote in the Guardian: “The deflation was sudden and horrible. All that we had worked for, all our dreams, all gone in a matter of seconds. I was close to tears – for the guys who had worked so hard; for the supporters who had spent so much time and money following us and whom, to an extent, we had let down.

“It was my last time in a Lions shirt, a dreadful memory which will live with me forever.”

Johnson might not have been regarded as an orator while Lions captain, but the emotion in that passage, despite having won a series four years previously, speaks volumes about what leading the side meant to him.

By his own admission he was not the perfect captain. But he is one of the Lions’ all-time greatest leaders and locks.

by Ben Coles