Martin Johnson remonstrates with an IRFU official. INPHO
Red Carpet

'It wasn't meant to cause offence. We didn't realise the uproar that'd come out of it'

It’s 20 years since Martin Johnson made his stand, as recalled by England legend Jason Leonard.

IT WAS PERCEIVED as an affront to the nation. Ireland’s president, Mary McAleese, stood by, patiently watching and waiting. But Martin Johnson and England weren’t for budging. The towering English captain held his ground and told the IRFU official where to go.

20 years ago, England made their stand at Lansdowne Road before beating Ireland in a Grand Slam decider. It was an incident that led to both the IRFU and the RFU apologising to McAleese.

This year, England will be back on Irish soil for the final game of the Six Nations on St Patrick’s weekend and while it could be a title decider, the pre-match surely won’t be as controversial.

Back in 2003, having been first onto the pitch, Johnson and his team lined up in Ireland’s position for meeting the president and singing the anthems. When there were pleaded with to move, Johnson wouldn’t cede. Brian O’Driscoll and his Irish players jogged out and after their brief confusion, lined up further into their designated half, with no red carpet in front of them.

It was a strange sight and as it became apparent to the Dublin crowd that Johnson was in the wrong place, the roars of disapproval rose and rose. Eventually, after the increasingly heated refusal from Johnson, McAleese had to welcome them to Ireland exactly where they stood before advancing onto the grass to say hello to O’Driscoll and co.

Some of the analysis since has saluted Johnson for his masterstroke of leadership before his side hammered Ireland. Well if it was that, then it was simply Johnson reacting well under pressure rather than plotting out a big statement of intent before the game. 

“I always laugh. Everyone always seems to think it was planned. It wasn’t planned,” says Jason Leonard, the 114-times capped prop who was at tighthead for England that day.

martin-johnson-3032003 Johnson refused to move. INPHO INPHO

“We were starting the game on that side of the pitch and at Twickenham, we just used to run out onto the side where you’re starting the first half. That’s where we’d stand.

“Someone said that it was really clever but I think people were giving Johno too much credit, to be quite honest! It wasn’t planned and it certainly wasn’t meant to cause offence.

“We didn’t realise the uproar that would come out of it. We were a bit confused when the Irish players ran around us and stood even further into that half. That was a bit weird but we were just focused on the game. I don’t think many of our players were aware we were on the wrong half.”

Leonard’s grandfather on his dad’s side was a Cork man, with his granny a Dub, so he took some heat from people close to him.

“I had all my uncles giving me crap and all sorts,” he says with a laugh. 

Leonard is able to remember it more fondly because England won 42-6 that day, scoring five tries in an outstanding performance that squashed Ireland’s hopes of winning a Grand Slam themselves.

England were ultra-focused in 2003 because they had spurned Grand Slam chances at the final hurdle in three of the four previous years. One of those heartbreaks came in Dublin in 2001, when a famous Keith Wood try was crucial for Eddie O’Sullivan’s side.

keith-wood-20102001 Keith Wood scores his famous try in 2001. INPHO INPHO

England had been motoring nicely that year, hammering Wales, Italy, Scotland, and France before foot-and-mouth disease hit and forced the postponement of the clash with Ireland until October. 

“We had lost a bit of momentum and it’s so important spending time together,” says Leonard.

“We played against an Irish side that we couldn’t dominate as much as we’d hoped to do.”

It was his Harlequins team-mate Wood who struck one of the key blows as he scored a memorable try from a lineout play, while David Humphreys kicked three penalties and Ronan O’Gara added two more in a 20-14 victory.

“Keith was such a fast, powerful runner with the ball,” says Leonard. “When you saw the lineout and who was coming around the corner, you just go, ‘Ah right, here we go.’ If you’re going to put money on someone scoring a try, it’s definitely Keith Wood because he’s partial to scoring a few tries.

“It was just collectively how Ireland played, they beat us by our own game – they had purpose, their forwards were on fire that day, their backs played really well, they defended like demons and we couldn’t get that dominance we were hoping for.”

Despite their dejection, Leonard fondly recalls how the teams mixed after the game. He loved that era of rugby, when professionalism had come in but the amateur ethos still persisted.

pre-match-hospitality-and-branding-jason-leonard Leonard was speaking on behalf of investment platform Saxo and their partnership with Harlequins. Inpho / Billy Stickland Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

Ireland and England were rivals, but he says that didn’t stop them from enjoying each other’s company after the final whistle. ”All of them,” is Leonard’s smiling response when asked if there were any especially legendary nights in Dublin.

“Straight after the game, you grab a flat pack of beers and you go next door into the Irish changing room and have a few drinks with the guys,” he remembers.

“Sitting down for a drink with the Claw or Woody or young John Hayes who was early on in his career. You have a jar with them and it’s always just such a great weekend. It makes it more special when it’s over St Patrick’s weekend.

“It’s such an occasion, you get in a taxi and the driver is talking about the rugby, so I’m really looking forward to that weekend.

“That will be one of the best weekends of the championship.” 

Jason Leonard was speaking on behalf of investment platform Saxo and their partnership with Harlequins.

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