MARTIN JOHNSON SADDLES UP FOR THE LAST TIME THIS WEEKEND IN THE GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP FINAL AGAINST WASPS BEFORE RIDING OFF INTO THE SUNSET AND RETIREMENT. IT WAS A PRIVILEGE TO GET A NATTER WITH HIM AT LEICESTER’S MEDIA DAY LAST TUESDAY.
To say he was looking ‘serene’ would be overegging it. ‘Composed’? Makes him sound like someone’s sonata. ‘At ease’ would probably be the best way to describe Martin Johnson this week as he frowned at the media one last time; at ease with both himself and his decision to retire.
‘It’s just totally the right time and the right decision’ he says. ‘It’s 100 per cent and there’s no question of coming back. I did jokingly say to the boys on some hot Friday afternoon in pre-season when they’re getting a flogging I might come down here with a deckchair and open up a couple of cold beers and an ice cream but they’d kick seven shades of shit out of me so I’m not going to do that. Course I’m going to miss the competitive bit of it but I guess if you’re honest you come to the point where it’s time to go, it’s just the time to go and you know it.’
So did Martin Johnson define Leicester Tigers or did Leicester Tigers define Martin Johnson? Time will tell. Inspiring, indomitable, he was an intimidating example and, without any doubt, one of the grumpiest men in world rugby.
‘Yeah, his banter is something that’s going to be sorely missed,‘ says Martin Corry. ‘We’ll just stick a cardboard cut out of him in the corner of the dressing room and it’ll be like he’s never been gone.’
‘In truth it will be odd without him,’ counters Lewis Moody. ‘But I’m sure they’ll replace him with someone a lot better looking and much more entertaining. Christ, it shouldn’t be difficult.’
The abuse, of course, he can handle. It’s the applause he finds difficult; dinners and dos these past few months picking up fistfuls of awards and listening to the Gods of the sport anointing him as one of their own. It’s not that he’s ungrateful just uncomfortable; either way, though, you suspect he’s going to have to get used to it.
‘To me,’ says Willie-John MacBride, ‘when I look back at that World Cup in 2003, it wasn’t Jonny Wilkinson who won that for England it was Martin Johnson. No question about it.’
‘Martin Johnson is a true great, not only of English rugby or British rugby but world rugby,’ says Phil Bennett. ‘One of the greatest players ever and I’m just proud to have met him: really, a wonderful, wonderful player.
What ends with a furious finale against Wasps at Twickenham this weekend all started with a midweek romp against the RAF at Welford Road in 1989. In the sixteen years in between, he’s done just about everything you can do for club, country and with the Lions in South Africa in 1997, a full and fantastic career with, perhaps just one regret.
‘I think if there was one time when you’d have wanted to rewind the tape and go back and do it differently it would’ve been the Lions in Australia in 2001,’ he says. ‘I mean you lose some games – we lost to New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup semi-final – when you have to hold up your hands and say, well done, we weren’t good enough, very disappointing. But in 2001 we had a real chance to win that and there’s lots of things we could and should have done differently – things that I personally could have done better as a captain and a player – and it’s a regret. But then I was very lucky two years later – same opponents, same venue and a lot of the same guys on the field – to win a World Cup with England, so I guess you have your days when we can say, you know, we were a bit lucky there and other days when it doesn’t go your way and that’s sport.’
It’s not all been about rugby, it just feels that way, which is why he’s looking forward to a gap year, a chance to indulge his almost unnatural obsession with the San Francisco 49ers, maybe catch up with the Tour de France, maybe just wallpaper the spare room. He says he might come back to rugby in some capacity at some stage in the future but, in the short term, you do wonder what’s going to replace the rugby buzz and, to be honest, so does he.
‘I was actually thinking of ceremonially burning my boots,’ he says, ‘but then I thought, ‘hang on a minute, I might want to do a bit of gardening’. I don’t know. I might just enjoy the rest. You know, away from rugby, I’m a quiet, cup of tea sort of a bloke so it’ll be nice to get home and actually have a bit of energy instead of just thinking, where’s the couch, come here my friend. Austin Healey and I did once say that, when we both retired, we’d start robbing banks just for the adrenalin rush but then if you want to do it seriously you can’t talk about it, can you? Besides, there’s no fun in armed robbery.’
It’s not just Martin Johnson signing off with the Tigers this week; Neil Back and John Wells are lacing it up for the last time but no one is stopping to smell the roses, not with Wasps and a Premiership title at stake this weekend.
‘I guess I’ve got that end of season feeling rather than that end of career feeling,’ says rugby’s great pragmatist. ‘It just feels like another big final so all I’m thinking about is, get out there and play, because we’re up against Simon Shaw and Wasps and they’re a good team and if we have any other ideas we’ll get stuffed.’
Little has become Johnson’s career like his leaving of it. He could have gone on longer with England post 2003 – he didn’t. He could be enjoying a final fling with the Lions in New Zealand this summer – he isn’t. Instead he’s signing off on the biggest domestic stage alongside his mates at the peak of his powers and with his reputation and his marbles intact. Yes, he’s a grumpy so-and-so but he’s a smart, grumpy so-and-so who did it all and who knew when to stop. You have to say, it’s not a bad epitaph.
12 MAY 2005