Martin Johnson interview: Losing a Lions series rankles with you...we're still talking about it 16 years later

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British and Irish Lions captain Martin Johnson
Johnson: Losing a Lions series will rankle for years (Source: Getty)

Few rugby players have ever enjoyed the ecstasy of victory more frequently than Martin Johnson yet even after a career of unparalleled achievement, the agony of defeat with the British and Irish Lions still lingers.

Johnson captained the Lions to a series win in South Africa in 1997 but describes the 2-1 loss in Australia four years later as the biggest regret of his rugby life.

This year’s Lions squad has carried plenty of scars to New Zealand, not least amongst those who experienced England’s embarrassing exit from a World Cup on their own turf two years ago.

Those England players were able to banish the demons by winning the Six Nations under Eddie Jones less than six months later, but Johnson’s reflections on his final Lions tour make clear that no such solace will be on offer to Warren Gatland’s men should they succumb to the All Blacks over the next three weeks.

Read more: However Lions series finishes, Gatland has made a mistake with his extra call-ups

In 2001, the Lions travelled to Australia — a destination where they had never lost — under the captaincy of Johnson but collapsed in the second half of the second Test when they had been just 40 minutes from winning the series.

Johnson described it as the “biggest lost opportunity of my career”.

“In 2001 we definitely had the capabilities to go and win it,” he told City A.M. “To let something go that you could have won, to not do it is massively disappointing.

“We’re still talking about it 16 years later, we’re not talking about Leicester losing the Pilkington Cup in 1996.

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“It does rankle with you. There’s no continuity, there’s no guarantee you’ll make the next one. The national team has continuity from year to year. As a player, you can’t get your head around four years. It’s half a career. It’s a long time.”

It’s perhaps just as well then that Johnson retired in time to avoid the pain that would have surely been suffered from the Lions’ 3-0 hammering in New Zealand 12 years ago.

In the Lions’ last visit to New Zealand, Graham Henry’s All Blacks blew them away and laid the groundwork for a decade of dominance.

Under Henry and his then-assistant Steve Hansen — who took over in 2012 — the All Blacks have since lifted two of three World Cups, won nine of 12 Rugby Championships and lost just three times at home, most recently in 2009.

Last week in their only warm-up match before taking on the Lions, they stuffed Samoa 78-0 — the second-heaviest defeat in the Pacific Islanders’ history.

Scary stuff. Yet the mystique that always seems to accompany any mention of the All Blacks fails to move Johnson.

“When I was coming through the age groups we were always given the All Blacks as the example to look at, not the England players,” he said.

New Zealand Haka TJ Perenara
Johnson: The Haka is so intimidating because of what's coming after (Source: Getty)

“We almost build it up ourselves sometimes. I played out there, I played against them and knew that they were human.

“It didn’t make any difference if you won or lost, they were all bloody difficult. They didn’t take a game off. So yes, they do have a mystique but their winning has developed that. You don’t have a mystique if you lose half your games.

“It’s like the Haka. People ask, ‘why is the Haka so intimidating?’ It’s because they’re good at rugby. If they were crap, the Haka would be nothing. ‘OK, nice dance but you lose’. It’s not the dance but what comes after.”

Johnson himself came close to pounding the earth, beating his chest and chanting, “Here stands the hairy man!” in Maori, as the All Blacks will to the Lions on Saturday, having played for New Zealand under-21s before the England senior team.

Read more: How the All Blacks win - New Zealand Rugby chief Steve Tew on how the World Cup champions sustain a winning culture

As it was, three of the former Red Rose captain’s first four international caps came against the men in black — and he won two of them.

“If you let the All Blacks play and stand off them and over respect them, let them do what they want to do — they’ll kill you,” he adds.

“They don’t let you off the hook, they put you under pressure, they don’t make silly mistakes that enable you to put them back under pressure. They just keep coming and eventually most teams break under it at some point. Everyone knows they’re not going to win.

“But if you put them back under pressure, if you can minimise your mistakes, not give them easy outs, not give them easy points, then you’re playing in a different game and suddenly it’s not as easy for them, you’re taking them to a different place.

“These guys need to inspire each other to play at a higher level. And that’s the joy of the Lions if you can get it right. You’re surrounded by the best players.”

British Lions Tour to Australia
Johnson: "That’s the joy of the Lions if you can get it right - you’re surrounded by the best players.” (Source: Getty)

Twice Johnson was tasked with bringing the best of the British Isles together and moulding former Six Nations enemies into a tight-knit team.

Yet he says there is no bad blood left lingering once the red jersey is pulled on and any fierce encounters from the past only serve to boost the captain’s command.

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“You’ve got to be impartial when you get together but people understand it,” says Johnson.

“These guys play for different clubs then come together to play for their country. They wouldn’t respect you if you didn’t try and smash them on the field and vice versa.

“When you get together with the Lions and you see the best players it’s great because you go ‘Christ, he’s a good player — we have to worry about him when we play against him, I’m glad he’s on my team.’”

Martin Johnson is an Ambassador for British & Irish Lions Principal Partner Standard Life Investments.

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