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Tuesday, August 24, 1999 Published at 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK

Sport: Rugby Union

Johnson: A lion of a man

Martin Johnson celebrates victory for the Lions with centre Scott Gibbs

Lawrence Dallaglio's decision to withdraw from the captaincy dented England's World Cup preparations.

Dallaglio special report
But any thoughts from the opposition that England might be about to enter the tournament unprepared, dissolved when his replacement was announced.

Martin Johnson is widely regarded as one of English rugby's most valuable assets.

[ image: Johnson:
Johnson: "Never has a bad game"
As captain, he led Leicester to the Allied Dunbar trophy last season, and with almost 50 international caps under his belt, he is a supremely experienced forward - not least for leading the British Lions to an historic 2-1 series victory in South Africa in 1997.

Regarded as the hard man of English rugby, Johnson is renowned for his do-or-die approach.

Frequently yellow-carded for his bullish tactics, he is feared for his ability to intimidate the opposition as well as rule the line-out.

All Black influence

His playing ability, if not his officer material, was first identified in New Zealand, by All Black legend Colin Meads.

Meads first saw Johnson play as a teenager on holiday in New Zealand, playing for College Old Boys in Taupo, and latterly on tour to Australia with the New Zealand Colts.

Meads said: "If he stays, he's a definite to become an All Black."

He did not stay, however, and has been a fixture in the England side since replacing the injured Wade Dooley against France in 1993.

One of Johnson's undoubted strengths is that other players look up to him. At 6ft 8in tall, that is not a problem in the literal sense - but figuratively too England will surely welcome his experience as the World Cup approaches.

Not known as an effective communicator, the decision to pick Johnson as captain for the British Lions was met, by some, with cynicism.

But as Lions coach Ian McGeechan later admitted, Johnson was never chosen for his ability to converse.

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

A true lion

Johnson lived up to McGeechan's every word. Perfect in the Lions environment, he let others do the talking, while he remained brooding, sharp and driven.

[ image: Johnson: Captained Leicester to the Allied Dunbar trophy]
Johnson: Captained Leicester to the Allied Dunbar trophy
Scotland and Lions forward coach Jim Telfer, famously grudging with his compliments, later compared him to Meads himself.

"Martin Johnson never has a bad game," Telfer said.

"He's indestructible. He's a big man in so many ways. He can dish it out and he can take it. He reminds me of Colin Meads with the All Blacks.

"To get to them you had to get past Meads. Martin is such an honest player. I think he's playing even better now than he did with the Lions.

"How do you plan to play against him? That's a tough one. He's at the heart of everything."

After replacing Dooley, Johnson made two appearances for the Lions in New Zealand, and when professionalism dawned, his value to Leicester was immediately illustrated by a five-year contract worth half a million pounds plus bonuses and personal sponsorship.

The second-row was the first English captain of the Lions since Bill Beaumont in 1980, and the first player since the war to be appointed Lions captain without first leading his country.

He had, in fact, only led Leicester nine times when he was appointed, and then only because Dean Richards no longer held down a regular place.

Things have changed since then, however, as Fran Cotton, manager of the 1997 Lions side announced: "Character was what I was looking for in the captain.

"And Martin Johnson has got it."

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