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‘Every error is amplified’ - Martin Johnson details key differences between club and international rugby

BY Jack Tunney  ·  Thursday Nov 23, 2023

During his 16-year career, Martin Johnson captained England, toured with the British and Irish Lions on three separate occasions, played in New Zealand and for the Barbarians, and still to this day holds the record for most appearances ever as a Leicester Tigers captain.

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Quite the list of achievements – and we’ve barely even scratched the surface of the great man.

With his playing days well behind him, Johnson turned his attention to coaching in 2008, when he took on the mantle of England head coach.

Despite winning the competition with England in 2003, Johnson’s 2011 version of the competition ended prematurely after being dumped out in the quarter finals by eventual finalists France.

Since that time, Johnson has not forayed back into rugby coaching, and has instead elected to stay in touch with the sport through punditry and helping out with his son Henry’s rugby journey.

Speaking with Lawrence Dallaglio on the Evening Standard rugby podcast, Johnson explained that he was happy to leave the pressure in the past, saying: “Well, I was watching the World Cup final. It was down to a point. I was thinking, even if I was supporting New Zealand or South Africa, I’d probably be feeling sick right now, you know?

“I’m fine. I’m lucky we have done what we did”, Johnson looked back fondly upon his endless list of memories and achievements. “I watch my boy play rugby, do a little bit of coaching with him and I’m happy with that. I’ve not got a huge desire to put myself through that every Saturday.”

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Still with the ability to understand the game more than most others, Johnson explained the difference that hunger to win can have on a side.

When you look at performing teams, they have probably all got similar values, maybe sort of expressed in slightly different ways.

“But fundamentally, you need that huge hunger to be successful. If you’re comfortable, and I’m not saying this about any team anywhere, but if you’re just happy where you are, then you’ll stay where you are or go lower.

“You have to be hugely hungry to be successful and, you know, Clive had that. We had that. We were never happy and in a good way. We probably didn’t win as much as we could have won in those preceding years. We blew some Grand Slams, so it always kept us grounded. It’s never comfortable.”

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With England’s World Cup having come to an end in the semi-final in Paris just over a month ago, scars will still be visable for many of the players who missed out on a final by just the one point. For Johnson, however, he expects the team to undergo a positive transition under the guidance of former teammate Steve Borthwick heading into the next four year cycle.

“There is an opportunity for some young guys to come in and play in the team because we are going to lose.

“Sometimes the World Cup is the end of an era for quite a lot of guys, and this one is definitely one of those. There will be quite a lot of England players sort of ending their careers now and not playing next year, so there is an opportunity there and it will be a bit transitional.

Test rugby is a different animal to club rugby altogether, fast ball, harder hits, and less space. Johnson was keen to import his wisdom on the reasons players need to be embedded into test rugby early.

“We need our young players to come in and very quickly understand what Test rugby is. You know, it’s not Premiership rugby, it’s Test match rugby. It’s physical, it’s quick. People say to me, “Oh, I saw so and so play. I saw X, Y and Z play for his club team’. I’ll just say, “Could he play in that All Blacks vs Ireland game? Could he play in that South Africa vs France game? Could he play in that World Cup final?’

“Because that is what Test match rugby is about; you have to be able to operate in those situations. It’s not playing in the Premiership where you can flick a ball out the back of your hand and make someone look fantastic.

“Everything you do is important. Every error is amplified. Every action you take is amplified at Test level because you get to do less, but you have to do them absolutely solidly well all the time otherwise you will get your team exposed. There isn’t the opportunity to make up for a couple of mistakes. It just won’t happen. You’ll be behind and beaten.”

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