On March 9th 1970, Martin Johnson was born in Solihull. Thirty four years later, on his retirement from international rugby after winning the Rugby World Cup, Sir Clive Woodward summed up his magnificent career: "I can’t speak highly enough of Martin. He has made an outstanding contribution for his country both as a player and as captain on and off the pitch. He stands down now having achieved everything there is to achieve as an England player."
Johnson’s hulking physique – six foot six and 18 and a half stone – made him the perfect fit to play in the lock position in the second row of the scrum, which is number four on the field. But it was not always about rugby with Johnson. After moving from Solihull to Leicestershire with his family as a child, he began to play American football for the Leicester Panthers.
In 1987, when he was still at school, Johnson was selected to play England 18 Group rugby – the first step of his astounding international career.
His talent on the field was not only noticed close to home – at the age of 19, he was invited by legendary All Black Colin Meads, to try out for the King County rugby team in New Zealand.
Johnson proved himself by flying through the trials and he played with King County for two seasons before being selected for the under-21 New Zealand squad to tour Australia. He came face to face with a player who would become a career-long rival, John Eales.
New Zealand was not a natural home for Johnson and his wife, and despite his success there, they returned to England in 1990 and made his mark at his local rugby team, the Leicester Tigers, until he retired from club rugby in 2005.
Johnson’s big break at Leicester Tigers came when he was able to replace teammate Dean Richards when he retired as Leicester Tigers captain. During his time as captain, Johnson enjoyed a lot of success at the club.
A defining year for the lock was 1997, when the Tigers won the Pilkington Cup and also reached the Heineken Cup final. In his six years as team captain (1997-2003), Johnson and the Tigers fought their way to two Heineken Cups and an impressive four Zurich Premiership titles.
The Leicester Tigers are proud to say that Martin Johnson was the team’s longest running captain. He played for the club more than 300 times in his career. For more information on the Leicester Tigers, look at the club website.
All this glory at Leicester meant that Johnson was on the radar of the England squad selectors. In 1993, Johnson stepped in at the last minute to make his England international debut, when he replaced Wade Dooley, who was injured. England snatched a 16-15 victory over France. Johnson obviously impressed, because he continued to be named in the England squad and also took Dooley’s place in the British Lions tour to New Zealand later in the year.
Internationally, Johnson had not yet led his fellow England players onto the pitch as captain, but had been representing England since this first international game in 1993. This lack of experience as captain did not prevent him from being selected as British Lions captain on the tour to South Africa during the same year. Johnson led his team, who were not favourites in the series, to a glorious 2-1 victory.
Following this huge success as captain of the British Lions, history was made in 2001, when Johnson became the only player to be asked to captain the Lions’ squad twice. Unfortunately the second time was not so lucky, with Johnson and the team losing 2-1 to Australia.
In terms of representing his country, it was not until 1999, after England skipper Lawrence Dallaglio’s fall from grace (he was caught up in a tabloid newspaper scandal), that Martin Johnson truly got his chance to shine – he was made England captain, and had much glory ahead of him.
His mettle as captain off-field was tested in 2000 when he had to negotiate with the Rugby Football Union about match fees and image rights when the England squad called a strike the evening before a test series against Argentina. Johnson worked his magic and negotiations were successful. The strike was called off.
In 2003, everyone in England was a rugby fan, when Johnson and his England boys trounced Ireland at Landsdowne Road, beating them 42-6, emphatically taking the much coveted Six Nations Grand Slam victory – beating every other country.
Johnson and the England team were on a roll in 2003. After snatching a 25-14 victory over Australia in a warm up tour before the World Cup, even the Aussie captain John Eales had to admit that Johnson was a force to be reckoned with, claiming that his performance during the game was "among the best ever by a lock forward".
2003 Rugby World Cup
This was a good omen for the 2003 Rugby World Cup. After beating some of the toughest rugby nations in the world – South Africa, Wales and France – England once again came face to face with their Australian rivals. But this time, it was no warm up. It was the World Cup Final.
In one of the defining moments in British sporting history, a closely fought match was abruptly ended by a Jonny Wilkinson extra time drop goal. Martin Johnson had led his English team to become Rugby World Cup champions.
The team were national heroes as they claimed the William Webb Ellis Cup in Sydney. Johnson had made another mark in the history book, as he was the first Northern Hemisphere player to captain a triumphant World Cup team.
Johnson retired from international rugby on a high in January 2004, taking his CBE New Year’s honour with him. Johnson won 84 caps for England. He continued to play for the Leicester Tigers until 2005.
For details of six important games in Johnson’s career, have a look at the BBC Sport website.
Johnson’s England career record
- Played: 84 games
- Won: 67 games
- Drew: 2 games
- Lost: 15 games
- Premiership 1994-95, 1998-99, 1999-00, 2000-01, 2001-02
- Heineken Cup 2001, 2002
- Six Nations 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2003
- World Cup 2003
- South African tour 1997