The reluctant hero of our times

Martin Johnson, the old darling, is still talking about rugby.

Martin Johnson, the old darling, is still talking about rugby. Deification has been wreaked upon him and he is sitting in front of me, as vast and compelling as a habitable South Sea Island, talking about rucks and mauls. (For those of you that don't know — which is 99.9 per cent of the adult British population — - rucks are those big melee things when the ball is on the ground, mauls are ditto when the ball is in hand.)

"People's perception of you changes, but you don't change. People want your time, they want you to do things, but that's great. I'm not moaning," says Martin Johnson. — Pic. REUTERS-

The England rugby captain just hasn't got it yet. "I'm not a living god. You should see me trying to come downstairs in the morning,'' he said. And yet this is the man, unarguably the greatest English leader since Winston Churchill, who has flung wide the door to the British pantheon of sport. With thunderous tread and a trail of blood he has taken his place among the gods. How the earth must have shaken. Gary Lineker, a mere slip of a lad by comparison, must have been all but shaken off his plinth.

Don't tell me he's ugly. As England's glorious World Cup campaign progressed, Johnson became conspicuously prettier. And by the time he was roaring like a lion, the golden trophy held above his battle-scarred head, he bore an alarming resemblance to an Adonis. "Mmmm,'' he said ruefully, if not nervously. "I do seem to appeal to the older woman.'' (I knew it was a mistake to meet him in daylight.)

Perhaps with this fatal fascination in mind, his handlers had him protected by sheet glass on that Thursday morning at the offices of his publishing company. You could see him, bolting cornflakes, but merely in a spectator capacity. The night before, a member of staff confided, he had signed 680 copies of his autobiography at a bookshop in Leicester. The appointment had to be extended by two hours. One small boy of eight, completely overwhelmed, had burst into tears. Then the boy's mother suffered a similar emotional collapse.

Her ecstasy is entirely explicable. A bright middle-class lad from Shirley (I kid you not) in Birmingham, brought up on Action Man, guns, algebra and football in among a tribe of happy brothers, has emerged as England's warrior hero. He was not interested in losing gallantly against Australia, as is our usual national pastime. His load-bearing weight was immense. Win or bust, said his stoic expression set in 18 stone of pure muscle.

Hence, his new fame, scarred nose and relentless schedule. The cornflakes represented the breakfast he had missed through an appearance on GMTV with a lesser light, the Prime Minister.

"It has been a bit busy,'' he said with heroic understatement.

It has been a bit busy because the nation was transfixed by the splendour of the drama in Sydney and the captivating decency of the protagonists. He and his team have done for rugby, for sport in general, what no multi-million pound ad campaign could hope to accomplish. England loves a set of heroes, and it has been a long time since you could say that without irony.

"Bit over the top, isn't it'' said Jonno, the former Market Harborough bank clerk who is refusing to stray into the realm of ecstatic self-congratulation. ''But I s'pose I'd rather it was that way than people going, `You're crap'. But if you think about the end of normal time, we'd blown it. We should have won by then. If we'd stopped and said, `Christ lads, we've blown it here'. If we'd let that feeling get into us we might have struggled. But we've spent all those years, months, weeks together and now it was a matter of nil-nil, with 21 minutes to go. So we rolled up our sleeves and got on with it.''

None more so than the captain himself. Johnson stole that half a yard in front of the Australian posts that allowed Matt Dawson to make that pass to Jonny Wilkinson to score the dropped goal that will inhabit our dreams and television broadcasts for decades. ''Afterwards I came out in a bit of a cold sweat thinking about it. Because if I'd made a mistake, it could all have gone horribly wrong. Having said that, I've seen the video andAustralia were offside. It would have been a penalty. Whether it would have been given or not, I don't know.''

World Cup hero Jonny Wilkinson shows the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) he received from Britain's Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, London. "We had a minute and a half to win the game in the end. Then Wilko puts the kick over and then we've got 30 seconds to try and stop them scoring. Then the whistle blows. Finished. Over. I find it impossible to go from that feeling of concentration to one of celebration," says captain Martin Johnson. —Pic. AFP-

Well, that's quite enough about rugby. Even Johnson agreed. ''The sport needs to be demystified. I often meet people who say to me, `I'm not a rugby person, I'm a football person.' And I think, `Hang on, you don't have to be one or the other.' There is this thing: rugby players don't like footballers because they think they're soft. Footballers don't like rugby players because they're big clumsy idiots. That's an old-fashioned view that's got to be broken down.

"This is where commentators have got to do a good job of explaining the game to people who don't know the sport while not patronising those that do know it. Most of the game is quite simple.'' This is where Johnson kindly explained the practical difference between the ruck and the maul, adding: ''In the ruck in the old days you had all the forwards piling in. You'd have 16 bodies all writhing on the floor!''

Pause for the older woman to surface from her fainting fit and pour herself a large glass of brandy. OK? We continue.

Johnson cannot admit to himself that the world has changed. One kick, one trophy from a grumpy Australian prime minister (''He wasn't happy, was he?'') doesn't change a lifetime devoted to lack of glamour. His favourite car of all time was his old dark blue Ford Scorpio, which he drove devotedly until the engine blew up on the M6.

"People's perception of you changes, but you don't change,'' he insisted. "People want your time, they want you to do things, but that's great. I'm not moaning.'' Famously, he announced upon arrival at London's Heathrow Airport that he was looking forward to watching The Simpsons and cleaning out the carp pond. How is the carp pond? "It's got a leak, actually,'' he said, sounding seriously perturbed. This isn't Alan Shearer, talking about a creosoted fence, sneakily pretending to be boring. This is the captain of the England rugby team making it clear he is genuinely boring.

"It's nice to be home and have a bit of normality. To be honest, we got a bit stir crazy by the end of the World Cup. We had the hotel on Manly Beach, right in front of the Pacific, and on the Saturday before the France game it was a beautiful hot day. The beach was packed and we sat there in the hotel watching this scene of everyone enjoying themselves through a picture window. It was a bit cruel really. We started thinking, `Oh, I wish I was at home.' Then you thought, `Wait a minute, it's going to be miserable, grey, cold and wet.' '' They decided, on balance, to stay and play the final.

There has been no moment of anti-climax or let-down as far as Johnson is concerned. He thinks that is a function of team sport. So great and never-ending the mutual mick-taking in the dressing room, no one flies beyond their tether to solid ground. Do the players dare cast aspersions at their leader? "Yeah, course they do. More than most.'' We know that Jason Leonard started calling him Mum, after his baby daughter, Molly, was born. "Sorry'' he said. The trademark brows suddenly and dangerously contracted. The totem mask that broke Australian hearts and possibly a few Springbok collarbones, has miraculously appeared.

A small voice squeaks: "Er, Mum, Jason said . . .'' before tailing off altogether. I think it's mine. "Well, p'rhaps he did. A little bit,'' Johnson concedes and the thunder brows mercifully unknit.

There is a theory that the veneration and respect Johnson carries into battle owes much to his propensity for — how shall we put it — violence. He entirely concurs. ''The threat of it is always a good thing. Although I did give away two mindless penalties in the first half against France and I was mortified with myself. But it's a rough, tough game. Everyone's been involved in a little bit of a scrap, it's just that mine get a bit more notoriety.''

No wonder the team so revere him. How bonded they must be by the whole mutual experience. He must love them all. "I don't want to ever see most of them again,'' he said heavily. This is his little joke. They are yoked together now in folklore for as long as people have breath and the DVD to tell the story.

Johnson, of course, did not cry. "I don't feel it really at the time. It's difficult to explain. We had a minute and a half to win the game in the end. Then Wilko puts the kick over and then we've got 30 seconds to try and stop them scoring. The game couldn't have been more dramatic and intense, could it? Then the whistle blows. Finished. Over. I find it impossible to go from that feeling of concentration to one of celebration. I can't go from one extreme to the other quickly.'' So what was he thinking with the Webb Ellis Cup in his up-stretched hands. "I was thinking, `Bloody 'ell. Better not drop it','' he said, eloquently. "It was just a nice moment for the team, wasn't it. I don't like being in the spotlight myself.''

Get used to it, Martin. On Monday, he and his team take an open-topped bus through the streets of London where he thinks there might be ''twelve'' people and a less conservative estimate might place the cheering throng at half a million. Then the trip to Downing Street and tea with the Queen. Despite calls for them to boycott the meeting with the Labour Prime Minister, he is not one for political statements about sport. ''I'm just a rugby player,'' he said. ''Anyway, it's not all Tony Blair's fault.''

Johnson is older and wiser. Where once he might have settled on-field arguments with a swift left hook, now he is even paying gentle homage to the Rugby Football Union. He thanks them for sticking with coach Clive Woodward, for the ice in his baths and "for all the club sandwiches I've eaten. No, don't put that,'' he added, in case it made him sound unprofessional.

All this time and I haven't even mentioned his status as a newly-minted sex god. ''If that's true, women must be in a sad state,'' he scoffed. A number of us in the room start to look a bit shifty. It is not an easy thing to admit to the England rugby captain that you have been casting him in the role of caveman with an expired sabre-toothed tiger slung round his shoulders. He looked shocked and appalled. ''God,'' he said huffily, ''my daughter's going to read that one day.'