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Martin Johnson - Doctor of Laws - Rugby Union player and Team Manager of the England Rugby Union fifteen

Oration by Dr S J Gurman

Martin Johnson is generally considered to be one of the finest lock forwards ever to have played rugby. He toured three times with the British and Irish Lions and is the only man ever to have captained them on two separate tours. He was also, of course, the England captain when they won the World Cup in 2003. He is at present Team Manager of the England Rugby Union fifteen. Martin Johnson was born in Solihull, in the West Midlands, in 1970. When he was seven years old, the family moved to Leicestershire so that Martin was educated, in rugby and much else, at Ridgeway Primary and Robert Smyth School in Market Harborough. He was selected for the England Schools side in 1987. On leaving school, Martin Johnson joined the Midland Bank (now part of HSBC) in Harborough:! This job taught him to think carefully about his own finances: he claims to be very conservative about money. It was also good training: he found that he could carry more bags of coins than anyone else.

Martin Johnson joined the Leicester Tigers youth team in 1988 and first played for them in the Premier League in 1989. He also spent two summers, 1989 and 1990, playing for King County in New Zealand.. In the latter year he played for the All Blacks Under-21 side against Australia. Fortunately for English rugby, Martin Johnson returned to this country for good in late 1990. He was in time to be selected for the England Under-21 side.

Martin Johnson played senior rugby for the Tigers from 1989 to 2005: a long career. He was captain of his team from 1997 until 2005. In these years Leicester Tigers played better and more successfully than they have before or since, although even without Martin Johnson they are still one of the best sides in the country. They were Premiership Champions six times between 1994 and 2002 and won the Heineken Cup for two successive years. In all, he played 307 times for the Tigers befoore retiring from competitive rugby in 2005. His testimonial match at Twickenham was one of the biggest rugby events of that year. A crowd of 42,000 watched Johnson’s XV beat an invitation side led by the incomparable Jonah Lomu, returning to rugby after a kidney transplant, 33-29. All the proceeds were donated to children’s and cancer charities: Martin Johnson is a Patron of the local charity, Hope Against Cancer.

Fifteen-man rugby, Rugby Union football, is, perhaps, the ultimate team game and Martin Johnson believes in team work, in rugby and in life. It is also a very technical sport in which it is essential that every member of the team knows precisely what the others will do. This understanding is particularly important for lock forwards who, as invariably the tallest men in the side, are crucial at line-outs and so need to know all the possible moves there. These characteristics of the game made Martin Johnson’s England debut, against France in 1993, even more dramatic than it would normally have been. He was due to play in the Friday B International when he was unexpectedly summoned to Twickenham to replace the injured Wade Dooley. He turned out with virtually no preparation, except an emergency 20 minute line-out session. An early accidental clash of heads with the French prop left him temporarily concussed but he recovered to ply superbly. England won the match 16-15. From then until his retirement from international rugby in 2004, Johnson was a fixture in the England side, winning 84 caps. In his time, England won the RBS Six Nations five times. He was team captain from 1999, moving England away from their earlier forward-dominated style to a more attractive fifteen-man style which also proved very successful. England under Johnson achieved a Grand Slam of five victories in the 2003 RBS Six Nations tournament. In that summer he led them in a successful tour of New Zealand and Australia, beating the All Blacks at home for the first time in 30 years. This was followed in the autumn by the World Cup, which England won. Johnson’s performance in the Final against Australia was exceptional: totally dominant in the line-out, effective in tight exchanges and cool-headed enough to set up the position for Wilkinson’s drop goal which won the game in the 100th minute of play.

Martin Johnson was appointed Team Manager of the England team in April 2008. They had undistinguished results against Southern Hemisphere sides that autumn, improved to win four games and come second in the 2009 Six Nations and mixed success in last autumn’s internationals. In his time as Manager Martin Johnson has not had the benefit of a stable team due to injuries: as I said earlier, rugby is, above all, a team game and a stable team is essential for success at the highest level. We wish him and the team fewer injury problems and more success in the imminent 2010 Six Nations.

To conclude, I can do no better than to quote the Early Day Motion presented to the House of Commons just on five years ago “this House ….. congratulates him on his outstanding contribution to Leicester Tigers, England and the British Lions over the last fifteen years, culminating in England’s World Cup victory in Sydney in November 2003, after success at club, international and Lions level; praises him for the respect in which he is held throughout the world of sport; and wishes him every success in his retirement”. The Senate and Council of this University fully agreed with these sentiments when they offered him an Honorary degree in the same year. Such are his commitments that this is the first occasion since then when I can say:

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present Martin Johnson, that you may confer on him the Honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

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