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World Cup hero Johnson to lead Red Rose

Latest update : 2008-04-16

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) has appointed former England captain Martin Johnson to manage the national team. England's world cup hero remains the only northern hemisphere captain to have lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy.

 

LONDON - As a player and captain Martin Johnson, who was named as England manager on Wednesday, ruled international rugby in a manner equalled by none of his contemporaries and few of his predecessors.

 

New Zealand's Colin Meads radiated a similar scowling menace from the second row. Another lock, Ulsterman Willie John McBride, won total respect as a captain on the brutal but triumphant 1974 Lions tour of South Africa.

 

Neither, though, had the opportunity to play in a World Cup and Johnson remains the only northern hemisphere captain to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy. He is also the only man to lead the Lions on successive tours.

 

Despite Johnson's impeccable pedigree on the playing field, he has no experience as an elite coach, selector or manager and the jury is out on his prospects in the complicated political world of British sports administration.

 

Paul Ackford, a fine England lock of an earlier generation and now the rugby correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, is a sceptic.

 

"What's Johnson ever done to deserve such approbation? Sure, he's won a World Cup and hats off to him for that, but he achieved that as a captain and a player," Ackford wrote.

 

"Unless I missed something, he wasn't coaching or managing England at the time and he hasn't coached or managed anything significant since so, please, can someone, anyone, tell me why he has suddenly assumed the role of saviour?"

 

Clive Woodward, coach of the 2003 England World Cup-winning team, told the Sunday Times Johnson could be a success but only if he took a prominent coaching role.

 

"Simply being Johnno is not enough. If he does not take an active part, he will find it very hard to gain the respect of the players. If he simply stands there watching and snarling he will soon be unpicked by everybody," Woodward said.

 

Jonny Wilkinson, who kicked the winning drop goal in the World Cup final, was more enthusiastic.

 

 

 

HARDEST SCHOOL

 

"He has barely put a foot wrong in his life. In life and in the vocations you follow, you are pretty much what you repeatedly do and what he has done is repeatedly perform at the highest level," Wilkinson told The Times. "He has never let anyone down and has been extremely successful."

 

Johnson, 38, learned his rugby in the hardest school of all, playing for a small rural club in the King Country in New Zealand, Meads's home province. The rugby was unrelentingly hard in the company of tough Kiwis who laboured during the week and played with the same uncompromising physicality at the weekend.

 

"The whole experience broadened me as person and helped me grow up," Johnson said. "I was returning home a lot harder mentally and physically."

 

On his return, Johnson graduated from Leicester to England and the Lions as a replacement on the 1993 tour of New Zealand. In 1997, Lions coach Ian McGeechan named him as captain for the tour of South Africa.

 

"I just liked the look of him walking down the corridor to toss up and the South Africans opening the changing room to see who was there. They'd look up and see Johnno framed in the doorway and know that we meant business," McGeechan recalled.

 

Johnson took no prisoners, serving several suspensions for over-robust play, and after taking over as England captain from Lawrence Dallaglio in 1999, he was equally uncompromising in looking after his players' rights.

 

In 2000, the England team opted to strike before a test against Argentina through a dispute with the Rugby Football Union over match fees and individual image rights. A deal, in which Johnson and other senior players was involved, was negotiated and the strike called off.

 

All was forgiven when Johnson led England to wins over New Zealand and Australia away in 2003. In the World Cup later that year, he gave possibly his finest performance in an England jersey in the final against Australia. With nothing more to prove on the field, he then retired from the international game.

 

Always a team man first and foremost and openly disdainful of the trappings of fame and celebrity, Johnson's retirement statement was typical of the man.

 

"There have been many highlights, the grand slam, winning the World Cup, but most of all, I will remember the moments together as a squad, just before and just after matches, in the changing room," he said. Johnson has an acute rugby brain and retains immense respect in the rugby world. He will need both qualities in abundance to succeed in his new role.

Date created : 2008-04-16

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