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Martin Johnson exclusive interview: 'I'm nearly 50 and I'm happy. I'm not burning to get back into rugby'

Next Saturday will mark eight years since Johnson resigned as England head coach
Next Saturday will mark eight years since Johnson resigned as England head coach Credit:  Geoff Pugh

A few days before the World Cup final, Martin Johnson found himself in a bowing contest with an 80-year-old Japanese tree surgeon. It wasn’t intentional – the tree surgeon gestured for Johnson to take a different route to avoid falling branches in downtown Tokyo, he nodded in response and before they knew it a 5ft nothing octogenarian and a 6ft 7in rugby player were in a bowing stand-off, neither wanting to show disrespect – but it is a small moment that illustrates Johnson is perhaps not the same granite-jawed, iron-willed man of public memory.

After all, not long ago the idea of Johnson bowing to anyone would have seemed ludicrous. Now, looking healthy and trim as he sits in a plush hotel room in Soho a few days after the World Cup final, not so much.

“I was intense because you had to be,” he explains. “Some guys could be very relaxed and go and play. I couldn’t. Am I more relaxed now? Of course. I’m not stressed about winning games or not.”

Next Saturday will mark eight years since Johnson resigned as England head coach and was last consumed by winning games. The captain of the 2003 World Cup winning side has not worked in the sport since, and he shows precious little sign of missing it. Does he think he will ever return? The answer, four months out from a landmark birthday, is probably not.

“I’m nearly 50 years old and I’m happy,” he says. “I’m not burning to get back into it. I don’t go to a tournament and go ‘oh [I’m missing out]’. When you watch from the stands you aren’t quite close enough. You have to be pitch-side to smell the grass and if you smell the grass… then maybe you get those feelings back. 

Johnson remains the only Englishman to captain a Rugby World Cup winning side Credit: Getty Images

“But when you see them [players and coaches] all in tears losing games then you think ‘Christ, back into those highs and lows of emotion?’ I was sitting there with a few old players - well, none of us made a mistake in that World Cup. All 100 per cent, dead easy.” He smiles. “It’s easy to talk in the stand.”

When he talks about his career Johnson almost exclusively refers to his playing days, pointing out “I didn’t get into the game to be a coach, I got into it to play.” He gives himself a slight out later in the conversation - “as I say to my kids, maybe in two or three years time you will have a very different point of view” - but it is as close as he has come to closing the door on his sport.

It is not hard to see why. Johnson is clearly very happy with a life that revolves around his family, wife Kay and children Molly and Henry, with a few punditry jobs and the occasional promotional event, such as this one for an American shirt company. He cycles a lot, he watches American Football, and he enjoys his time as “a normal civilian”.

It helps that his legacy is secure. After England’s comprehensive 32-12 defeat to South Africa last weekend he is still, for four more years at least, the only Englishman to captain a Rugby World Cup winning side. With that in mind, you’d understand if a small part of him wanted England to lose so that Owen Farrell didn’t join him on the pedestal, but Johnson insists that wasn’t the case. 

Martin Johnson believes Eddie Jones is still the right man to lead England Credit: Getty Images

“How do I feel about still being the only World Cup winning captain? A bit sad really because I don’t want to be! I think we are all very happy to be kicked into touch with our old boring stories because it’s been a long time now, hasn't it,” he adds. “Look, what we did in 2003 will always be there. But what you want for English rugby is for another team to do it. 

“The England boys produced one of the great performances in the semi-final, and a very good one in the quarter-final. But they will remember the final and not winning it. It will take until the end of their careers for a lot of them to get their heads around why they didn’t play as they would have liked to in the final. What they could have done differently, if anything. That is the deal though. There are no guarantees.”

He believes Eddie Jones is the right man to carry on as head coach and is adamant this team’s best rugby is in front of it. But he is far from consumed by the sport - he is in a rugby Whatsapp group and is astonished at how many games his friends watch - and you sense his most enjoyable rugby experience of recent years was a boozy trip to the Hong Kong Sevens.

Instead he is content with being a father and is amused at how a film premiere helped his children understand what he achieved in his career.

“There was a documentary about 2003, ‘Building Jerusalem’, he says. “There was a premiere, I thought it was going to be a private screening. Instead it’s Leicester Square, red carpet, flashing lightbulbs. My daughter was 12 and loved the glamour. I’m just her dad, she sees me at home and could not compute I was getting that attention. She was on the pitch in Sydney when we won so she’s going ‘I’m in it dad, I’m in it!’

“My son then became obsessed with Jonny [Wilkinson] and drop-goals. I was at school last year and his teacher said to me ‘your boy can drop-kick anything’. It was an 18-month phase - everything had to be a drop-goal.”

Johnson laughs again, glad that this phase has passed at least. Before our time is up I ask him if he knows what he’ll end up doing next.

“I never really planned much in my life,” he says. “It all happened. Some people say ‘I’m going to do this, this and this. Really? Does it ever happen like that? I don’t find it does. 

“I’ve been in rugby most of my life. I’ve always enjoyed it. If [from now on] it’s just watching my boy play, or meeting up with my mates and going to watch a game…”

He lets the sentence drift, leaving the final words unsaid, but it seems that Johnson is content for his most stressful rugby experiences from now on to be bowing stand-offs with the locals.  

Martin Johnson was speaking at the launch of UNTUCKit, who design shirts specifically to be worn untucked