The greatest second-rows of all time: Martin Johnson
One of the greatest second-rows to play the game, the imposing figure of Martin Johnson, at 6ft 7in and 18st 9lb, had a stare that could curdle cream from a hundred yards. He was England’s enforcer and most successful captain
Major teams: Leicester, King Country
Test span: 1993-2003
England caps: 84 (82 starts)
Lions caps: 8 (8 starts)
Test points: 10 (2T)
When he held aloft the William Webb Ellis trophy in 2003, it marked his 39th Test as captain, of which England won 34. His leadership credentials had been apparent since 1997 when Sir Ian McGeechan, who wanted a towering Lions captain to be able to look down on Springbok skipper Gary Teichmann, picked the Leicester lock to lead the side into what ended up as a triumphant series. Johnson had made his name four years earlier in 1993 on the Lions tour of New Zealand – after just one cap for England.
The land of the long white cloud had already had a profound effect on Johnson. As a 19-year-old he had been approached by All Black legend Colin Meads to try out for King Country and spent two years there, honing his craft. He met his future wife there before returning to the UK.
Solihull-born, Johnson had been raised in Market Harborough and even had an early foray in American Football but on his return from New Zealand he continued a 16-year love affair with Welford Road, playing 362 games for the club. In a decorated domestic career Johnson led them to four Premiership titles and two Heineken Cups.
His ability to read a game whilst it unfolded, communicating to team-mates the course of action most likely to bring a try two or three phases down the line, was remarkable. “His rugby brain was a huge component in making him a great captain,” said long-time Tigers team-mate Geordan Murphy.
In 2001 Johnson became the first player to captain the Lions on two occasions and two years later, following a second England Grand Slam, he was part of a rearguard action that defeated the All Blacks on their own soil for the first time since 1973. John Eales called his performance “among the best ever by a lock forward”.
After driving England to their defining moment in Sydney, Johnson retired at the end of that season. Despite his lack of coaching experience, he became England manager and achieved a Six Nations title in 2011, before resigning after a disappointing World Cup later that year.