The Greatest: Number four lock

Date published: October 29 2009 - Editor

There is little doubt that the greatest player ever to wear the number four jersey is World Cup-winner Martin Johnson.

Some have cried foul over the voting process, but there is little doubt that the greatest player ever to wear the number four jersey is World Cup-winner Martin Johnson.

Inspirational enough to be appointed England coach despite having had no experience, Johnno racked up over 3000 votes, well clear of Bakkies Botha in second place.

Johnson was born in Solihull in the West Midlands, the second of three brothers – his younger brother Will plays back row forward for Leicester.

Johnson briefly played American football for the Leicester Panthers as a tight end or defensive end, and remains a staunch supporter of the San Francisco 49ers to this day, also once invited as a studio analyst for Superbowl XLI on ITV.

In 1989 he was approached by former All Black Colin Meads to try out for the King Country side in New Zealand. His trial run was successful and he played two seasons for King Country, also making the New Zealand U21 side where he played opposite John Eales in Australia. However, in late 1990, Johnson returned to England because New Zealand girlfriend, and later wife, Kay, wanted to travel. He played for Leicester Tigers from 1989 to 2005.

Johnson had made his England debut against France in January 1993 under dramatic circumstances. He was due to play in another game when he was unexpectedly summoned to Twickenham to replace the injured Wade Dooley.

With barely any proper preparation (he had a last-minute line-out session with his new team-mates before the game), Johnson was thrown into the deep end, but two years later he was part of the side that won the 1995 Grand Slam. He was also called up to the 1993 Lions tour as a replacement, playing twice.

In 1997 with the retirement of Dean Richards, Johnson was made club captain but only captained the side when Richards was not playing. In 1997 Leicester won the Pilkington Cup and reached the final of the Heineken Cup. He also captained the Lions on the victorious 1997 tour to South Africa.

Johnson took the England captaincy in 1999 after Lawrence Dallaglio was caught in a honey trap by the News of the World about cocaine dealing. Under Johnson's leadership, England moved away from being a forward-dominated side and towards the 15-man rugby that Woodward wanted them to play.

He was again asked to captain the Lions tour to Australia in 2001, becoming the only man to captain them twice. The tour was hugely successful financially; however, they lost 2-1 to a seasoned Australian side captained by John Eales and coached by Rod Macqueen.

The 2003 Grand Slam season was followed by a successful warm up tour to New Zealand and Australia. Among the highlights of a successful tour was the 6-man England scrum (with 2 back row forwards in the sin bin), which held off pressure from the All Blacks, when Johnson famously told his comrades in the scrum to “get down and shove”.

When asked afterwards about what was going through his head in the scrum he replied “my spine”. In England's 25-14 victory over Australia, Johnson also performed at a monumental level, leading the former Australian captain, John Eales (who retired in 2001), to commend his display as 'among the best ever by a lock forward'. England took this into the 2003 World Cup, where the rest is history.

Johnson retired from international rugby in January 2004 but continued to play for Leicester until 2005. Under his captaincy (lasting 1997 to 2003) the Leicester Tigers won four Zurich Premiership titles and two Heineken Cups.

He was awarded the CBE in the 2004 New Year honours and was second in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards behind Jonny Wilkinson.

In April 2008 Johnson was appointed England team manager despite having had no previous experience, and England started the Autumn internationals by beating the Pacific Islands 39-13. That was followed with a loss to Australia, then a 42-6 defeat South Africa and then another loss this time 32-6 against New Zealand at Twickenham.

England have had four wins under Martin Johnson; in the 2009 Six Nations they beat Italy 36-11, France 34-10 and Scotland 26-12. They scored the most points and tries in the tournament.

But he was a great leader, who knew just how to get under the opposition skin… Enjoy!