Nick Cain talks to Exeter blindside Tom Johnson about his remarkable rise from grass roots to Test level

Tom JohnsonTom Johnson is not so much a late bloomer as a one-man Indian summer. The Exeter Chiefs blindside flanker was a 5ft 10ins, 13 stone (85kg) scrum-half when he left Dean Close School in Cheltenham at 18, and while he was always quick and combative, the idea that 12 years later he would be going toe-to-toe with the Springbok forwards as a 6ft 2ins, 16 and a half stone (105kg) back row bruiser was quite simply unthinkable.
Yet, that is what Johnson did this summer, winning his first three caps for England at the age of 30 in the white heat of the summer Tests against South Africa in Durban, Jo’burg and Port Elizabeth. Even more remarkable than the growth spurt which transformed Johnson physically during his time as a sports science student at Oxford Brookes University is the path through the grass-roots club game that he has taken to the top, breaking into the England elite after learning his trade at Chinnor and Reading, before clinching pro contracts with Coventry and his current home, Exeter.
What makes it an even better yarn is that Johnson, who has spent his entire career proving the naysayers wrong, admits that after years of learning the back row trade the hard way, and having finally made the utimate breakthrough to play Test rugby, he feels he is there on merit.
“When I was at Reading and Coventry I almost wanted to get to where I was out of my depth, and then I could retire happy that I’d gone as far as I could. But I never reached that point, and now I have that sense that I belong at Test level, and I don’t feel out of my depth.”
He elaborates: “I’ve never thought of myself as being disadvantaged in any way, and I’ve really enjoyed all the clubs I’ve been at. But I never thought I should have been up there – and at the time I shouldn’t have been. Even last season I didn’t think I could play for England, although I was always hopeful.
“After being selected in the England squad, going into the group at first was quite tough because I’d heard that it could be pretty arrogant and that you could be pushed to the outside, but it was quite the opposite. It was really down-to-earth. I’d been in the Saxons with Stuart Lancaster as coach, and had a great time, so having had that gradual introduction a year earlier made the transition easier.”
Johnson confesses that the way he handles the great expectations he has of himself is to expect nothing: “I’m a bit of a pessimist. If you expect to lose but are very determined, and find a way to win, it’s brilliant. That outlook takes the pressure off, because it’s really about the pressure you put on yourself. I love to say, ‘I proved you wrong’. On the summer tour of South Africa I had to prove a point because some people had said that I was not an international player, and I believe I did that.”
Anyone who saw his all-action performances against the Springboks will agree. Furthermore, having got his hands on the England No.6 shirt following the injury to Tom Croft, he showed no signs of wanting to relinquish it when he was faced by two rivals for the position – Phil Dowson and Tom Wood – when the Chiefs travelled to Northampton last weekend.
Exeter may have had to settle for a losing bonus point, but Johnson posted notice that when it comes to work-rate, speed around the pitch, providing options as a carrier and a link-man, and hammering away at the breakdown, he will take some shifting. His view of the 24-21 loss?
“Northampton are a very good mauling side, but in other respects we had parity – and in attack maybe we were on top. The ‘learn-on’ is that we needed more ball.”
Johnson says he is looking forward to today’s assignment against London Welsh at the Kassam, which takes him back to his old stamping ground in Oxford. “It’s a very good thing for a city with such a rugby interest and history to host top level rugby again due to the London Welsh decision to play there.”

Rob Baxter
Rob Baxter

Johnson’s rise has been inextricably linked with that of the Chiefs, whom he joined from Coventry six years ago, and he says that  Rob Baxter has been instrinsic to both.
His account of  Baxter begins as a  description of a canny workaholic who will have tailored the game plan to combat London Welsh just as he does every opponent, but by the end you have a picture of a young coach who is central to Exeter’s remarkable journey not only to the Premiership, but to a top six finish last season and Heineken Cup qualification.
“Rob’s been at the heart of it. He is a very level-headed man who does not rush or over-react. He plays great attention to detail and is a very hard worker who is always first in and last out. In the Championship we played quite a limited game plan under him, but there has been a big change in his coaching style since we were promoted. He realised he had to change because we would not survive playing that way in the Premiership.
“He is open to ideas and adaptable. We tend to pick each option according to who we are playing, and everyone knows what we want to do. Rob puts a very strong emphasis on basics, and concentrates more on the ‘there and then’ rather than 10 phases later. He is very astute and watches hours of video, especially of New Zealand. If he sees something that might work then he’ll try it on the training field – but, if it doesn’t work, he’ll hold his hand up and scrap it.”
Johnson says Baxter is just as effective when he moves from overall strategy to improving individual skills: “He’s helped me massively at the lineout, and of course he was a very good lineout forward. I used to be quite erratic, jumping off different feet, but he advised me to regularise the way I jumped, using the same take-off foot and the same movement, making life much more straightforward for our hooker and lifters. He also advised me to concentrate on being quick into the air, and jump to meet the ball rather than wait for it.”
As well as the priceless ability to keep on learning and improving, Johnson has an equally valuable intrinsic quality. Speed. Ask him if he is the quickest in the Exeter and England back rows and he is matter-of-fact.
“I’m the fastest back rower in the Exeter team, just about, but Ben White is reasonably pacey, and Richie Baxter is also surprisingly quick – but over a distance I’d back myself. Our backs coach, Ali Hepher, said that if he got me at a younger age he’d probably have put me at centre. In the England squad I think Tom Croft is probably a bit quicker – in fact, I think he’d cane me over 100 metres – but I’m not sure about over 40 metres.”
However, Johnson says hard graft has also helped: “I was pretty quick at school, but it’s something that I’ve kept working at. You can improve your speed with sprint coaching and intensive training. Margot Wells came to Coventry for a couple of sessions and improved my technique, and since I’ve been at Exeter I take speed and agility training very seriously, and I also work on the speed-endurance aspect in pre-season.”
Hard work, never give up, and never say never, are recurrent themes in the Johnson story, and, as he contemplates the most difficult Heineken Cup baptism imaginable, he makes no bones about the way that he, and the Chiefs, feed off their underdog status.
“Leinster and Clermont have internationals and superstars throughout their teams, as have the Scarlets. We pride ourselves on playing for 80 minutes and we’ve been in dark places and climbed out – as we did against Northampton last weekend. We come back where other teams might capitulate. We’ve been written off a bit, but will go out and enjoy it even though it’s been called the ‘group of death’. People wrote us off in the Premiership at the start of our first season and we did okay, so maybe we can do the same again.”
That same determination comes through in his comments about the Premiership: “It’s about building the same reputation as Leicester, Saracens, and Harlequins, where you go to each other’s grounds and turnover the home team. It’s not just about being competitive, it’s about beating them, and a guy like Rob Baxter will not rest on his laurels. Dean Mumm is a quality signing, but Tigers and Saracens have better second-string packs than the starting packs of most teams in the Premiership.”
Tom Johnson wearing the England jersey in South Africa
Tom Johnson wearing the England jersey in South Africa

As for England, and the looming autumn series, Johnson’s feet are firmly planted. “I fell into that trap last year when I wanted to be involved with England, and I put unnecessary pressure on myself and lost form. It is all about Exeter, and them doing well – and if that happens, then there’s a chance that I’ll do well too. The higher you go the more it is results driven. There are no weak links in the coaching team Stuart Lancaster has brought in, and there are some very exciting players. At Chiefs we try to be very hard to beat at home, and doing the same at Twickenham is a good start point for England.”
What about countering the power and intensity teams like the Springboks generate, and that England struggled to match in a June tour which finished with two defeats and a draw?
“I wasn’t used to the pace of it when I came in the Premiership, especially when teams like Quins and Leicester hit a purple patch and rolled you back, and it was the same  against South Africa. If you made one tiny mistake against the Springboks you would be under the cosh for 15 minutes. But England are still quite a young, inexperienced side. It’s about the belief we need to have in each other – a real collective will to get the crowd behind us by leaving everything on the pitch.”
Johnson says of his own journey from the grass-roots to the top of the game that sometimes he has to pinch himself to make sure it is real – but it makes him even more determined to make the most of his opportunities.
“Everything at the moment seems like a bonus and I’m happy with what I’ve achieved. I’ve come a long way from South West 1 and National 3 South, and I’m very much looking forward to the Heineken Cup. I want to play blindside for the Chiefs and England, and I have my work cut out. But I believe that there are no limits.”

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