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England’s World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson

Martin Johnson led England to World Cup glory in 2003. Here the rugby icon talks bike-riding, old-style boots and BBC punditry

Downtime with… England’s World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson

What’s the funniest thing you saw on the pitch?

Back in the amateur days, Leicester were playing a cup semi-final at London Irish. Over the Tannoy came one of those announcements, “Would the owner of the Volvo, registration blah blah, please move it, you’re blocking the ambulance.” At which point their tighthead, Gary Halpin, went “That’s my car!” and left us there for three minutes while he went to sort it out.

What really annoys you?

People faffing about and wasting my time. I don’t like inefficiency.

If your house was on fire, what one item would you save?

My bike. I do enjoy riding when I can.

Have you any cycle events coming up?

Yeah, I do four or five a year. RideLondon, Birmingham’s back this year, I normally do one in the Peak District, I like to get to Europe every year. It’s nice to ride somewhere different, and challenging. Some of them are quite mountainous.

England’s World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson

Legendary leader: Martin Johnson lifts the World Cup in 2003 (Getty Images)

What’s the silliest thing you’ve bought?

I never buy anything that I regard as silly. Although people might regard spending money on a bike as silly.

Okay, the best thing you’ve bought?

My first Adidas rugby boots were one of my favourite things ever. Aged 12. They were a proper pair of boots because there was a difference then. If you had a high-cut pair of Adidas boots, in my eyes you were ‘the man’.

What’s the best present you’ve ever received?

My brother, Andrew, bought me a record player so I could play the old vinyl; that was a very thoughtful present.

Do you have any phobias?

Not really. Unless you count being stuck in traffic jams.

Who would be your three dream dinner party guests?

Only three? I’m setting the table for five. Napoleon and Wellington. That would be interesting. They only fought each other once and a lot of people say it was a score draw – it certainly wasn’t. I’d have Julius Caesar in there as well. Leonardo da Vinci. And Eddy Merckx, one of my sporting heroes.

Eddy Merckx

Sporting hero: Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx in action (Getty Images)

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

It was from my PE teacher at Welland Park High School in Market Harborough. When you’re big at that age, you’re scoring all the tries and it’s easy. He said, “When you go up a level or others catch you up, you won’t be able to rely on that. You need to use all your skills.”

It’s great advice, you’ve got to be an all-round player. I’ve never forgotten it.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Biscuits. I’ll hoover anything really. I do ginger nuts at first dibble, with shortbread bottom of the list.

What was your first job?

Working in a nuts and bolts factory as a schoolboy in the summer holidays. I had a massive machine that I used to put nuts and bolts in. It was during the shutdown, so there was just a skeleton staff covering. I had this machine all to myself and I didn’t break it either.

What would you choose as your specialist subject on Mastermind?

I once did a Celebrity Mastermind for Wooden Spoon and chose the Waterloo campaign, 1815. Just on stage, not on TV – I’m not putting myself under that pressure! So I’d do Waterloo or the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s. That was my era, when I was a kid watching them.

San Francisco 49ers

Blast from past: Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers in action in 1985 (Getty Images)

Any superstitions when you played?

No, I just had a routine. But if I had the choice of a number I’d always choose a prime number. It’s a peculiarity of mine.

How are you finding BBC TV punditry?

It’s fun. Going to games not involving England is different for me. There’s a big audience, a lot of people who won’t watch a huge amount of rugby, so you have to get the balance right between those people and the rugby heads who want more detail.

Is that the biggest challenge?

The art is saying something concise and insightful without being too technical or trying to be too clever. Live TV outside is a challenge – you could barely hear yourself talk in Paris. The warm drinks come out when we’re off air and so far I’ve not spilt a coffee over the desk or been caught with a sandwich in my trap.

How would you like to be remembered?

Just as a decent bloke. “He wasn’t a knobhead.” That will do for me.

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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