x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Hard-man Johnson

Even the Ireland captain perversely respected him for 'insulting' the Irish president.

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Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week Paul Radley looks at rugby union's Martin Johnson.

Martin Johnson was one of the first sports stars I ever got to interview. It was a busy week in my role as the junior sports reporter at my local newspaper. The Johnson interview was followed a few days later by a pow-wow with the European golf captain Sam Torrance. Just so I did not forget my place in the food-chain during my early days in the job, I was also sent out to do a story on the leading run-scorer in the history of one of the nearby village cricket clubs, the septuagenarian Bill Finch.

Johnson had just led England to their first triumph in the Rugby World Cup; Torrance had wrestled the Ryder Cup from Tiger Woods and Co; Finch had just had a hip-replacement. The England captain Johnson, who had days earlier announced his international retirement, was heading to town to sign copies of his autobiography at a supermarket. I had been detailed to get a news line for our sister newspaper. They must have been unimpressed: it ended up as the second story on page 16. Hardly befitting of arguably England's greatest rugby hero at the height of his fame.

My most salient memory of the meeting was that he was almost completely incapacitated by a broken hand. Rugby fans will be unsurprised to find out he had picked up the injury throwing a punch while playing for Leicester Tigers in the European Cup the previous night, against the Welsh side Newport-Gwent Dragons. Herein lies the essence of Johnson's greatness. He had played through the advent of the image rights era - indeed he was one of the ringleaders when England's players, suddenly aware of their marketability, once went on strike for fairer pay.

Johnson's England colleague Matt Dawson represented the phenomenon of rugby player-as-celebrity most strikingly when he lost his place in the national side because training clashed with his rehearsals for the British television show A Question of Sport. Contrast that with Johnson, who could not grip a pen when he had a string of signing dates lined-up to publicise his book, due to the simple reason that he had a match to win and a Welshman got in his way trying to do it.

He did not become a totemic hard-man by saying: "Go ahead Gareth, you have the ball - just mind the face, I've got some TV to do later." Even when his playing days were nearing their end and he could have named his price to any broadcaster. His bloody-minded, "up-yours" attitude fashioned English rugby's greatest triumph - the 2003 World Cup win over Australia. Earlier that year, Johnson had demanded his side stand their ground after they had lined-up on the wrong side of the field before the national anthems, when they played Ireland at Lansdowne Road.

As a result, the Irish president Mary McAleese was forced to walk off the red-carpet to greet the home players. The Irish were livid at such a show of disrespect, and he is still demonized in the Emerald Isle - even though their captain that day, Brian O'Driscoll, admits he felt a perverse respect for him. England got the result, thrashing the Irish 42-6 to clinch the Grand Slam, which had eluded them for eight years.

Johnson kept upsetting people; England kept on winning, until the ultimate prize, the Webb Ellis Trophy, was finally theirs. Johnson believes his competitive edge was passed on to him from his mother, who was a keen cyclist. He grew up idolising Kevin Keegan, and probably would have preferred to have played centre-forward for Liverpool than second-row for the England rugby team. That nearly never happened, anyway. While he was still trying to break into the Leicester first team, Johnson spent summers in New Zealand, and was even picked to represent the All Blacks Colts side.

It is a marker of his iconic status in England that he was repeatedly badgered to return to the fold and manage the national team, which he eventually did this summer. He had no coaching experience to speak of, save for a few children days, such as at the Dubai Exiles in 2006. But he is Martin Johnson - the English rugby hero. He was first offered the job when he was in the middle of that trip to the UAE two years ago. While he was running the Exiles juniors through their paces along with Springbok great Francois Pienaar, he broke off to take an urgent call on his mobile phone. When he returned, he informed everyone that "Andy Robinson's just been sacked".

Then, later that day, while being quizzed on Dubai radio over whether he was going to answer England's SOS, he replied curtly: "Last I heard, Andy Robinson still had the job." Up-yours everybody. Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Johnson is the all-time best, text G24 to 2337 Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday October 2. pradley@thenational.ae