Johnson's turned down the Army for… National Service
22:23 GMT, 7 June 2012
No matter what extremes of courage, commitment and physical endurance England will have to produce against South Africa on Saturday, Tom Johnson is unlikely to be unnerved on his Test debut, having come so close to abandoning rugby for a career in the Parachute Regiment.
The 29-year-old Exeter flanker was confirmed yesterday as one of two uncapped players in the side named by Stuart Lancaster for the first Test at Kings Park stadium, along with Harlequins prop Joe Marler.
Johnson's promotion to the blindside berth in the enforced absence of Tom Croft and Tom Wood sees another player join the growing ranks of those who have taken remarkably convoluted routes into the national team.
Step up: Johnson (fourth left) in training with England in Durban
Since Lancaster took over as head coach at the end of last year, many newcomers have emerged from backwaters of the game, including Ben Morgan, whose path to the top included a crash course in professional fitness at the Scarlets in west Wales, and Mouritz Botha, who was stripping asbestos before making the grade at Saracens.
Lee Dickson, the Northampton scrum-half, was poised to enrol with the Marines before making his breakthrough at Newcastle.
Johnson is another Englishman born into a forces family in Germany – Dusseldorf in his case – and, while he was getting by with the help of a student loan and playing for Reading in National League Three South, he certainly wouldn't have imagined this day would come.
In fact, he was ready to sign up at the Army's officer recruitment centre at Colchester.
'It is quite amazing when I think about it,' he said. 'I remember when I was deciding to go to rugby or the Army, the Paras.
'In their interview, they said, “Do you think you would make a professional rugby player”. I said I probably wouldn't, and the Army was probably more realistic. That was when I was 22 – seven years ago.
Push comes to shove: Lancaster overseeing England's final preparations
'I wanted to go into the infantry and, after a few tests, they suggested I should take on the Paras (training programme). My brother, Ben, has just come back from Afghanistan, he is in the Royal Logistics Corps. My old man, Richard, was air commodore in the RAF.'
For Johnson, the turning point came with a move to the Midlands.
'I was playing for Reading and got a letter from Coventry, saying, “Please come and meet us”. They offered me a one-year deal. I thought I should give it a go for a year otherwise I would probably regret it.
'It seems I made the right decision. It was good at Coventry, but it was close for a couple of years whether I was going to keep playing rugby or join the army.'
He has been in fine form since moving to Exeter and his displays led to a try-scoring appearance for England in the non-cap game against the Barbarians last year. He put in another superb display in the same fixture this season. Johnson is grateful to Exeter for assisting his progress.
'The coaches have to take a lot of credit for what they have instilled in us,' he said. 'Rob Baxter (head coach) said (my selection) was well deserved and told me to enjoy it.'
That is what Marler plans to do, too, after being promoted to the No 1 shirt on the back of a superb season for champions Harlequins.
Ready to fight: Captain Chris Robshaw
and Mouritz Botha enjoy some banter during training
The 21-year-old loosehead convinced Lancaster of his Test readiness with a solid scrummaging display against England tighthead Dan Cole in the Premiership final, but also with his set-piece efforts in training during the Six Nations, when he was not picked but his advances were noted.
Referring to those regular, 'live' scrummaging sessions at the team's Surrey training base, Marler said: 'I was just thinking, “I've got to get things right here or I could be embarrassed”. Coley is a top scrummager so for me to be up against him in training was a great experience. There were a couple of difficult moments early on, when I thought, “I better learn fast here”. I'm still learning now.'
He has learned over time to control what was once a short fuse, although the Springbok pack will no doubt seek to test his self-restraint, as Marler is well aware.
'I'm sure they will pick on me at some point,' he said. 'But it is my responsibility to stay on the field and do my job.'
As revealed in Thursday's Sportsmail, Lancaster has moved Ben Foden to the wing to make room for Mike Brown at full back. Brown's left-footed kicking is seen as a potential asset.
Team ethic: The players come together to talk through plans for the first Test