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Martin Johnson on England's most important player and Lions selection

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British and Irish Lions ambassador Martin Johnson talks tour selection and England's key players.

Martin Johnson on Joost van der Westhuizen, England's unsung hero and Lions selection.

England's 2003 World Cup winning captain paid tribute to former Springbok scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen saying he was the most dangerous player he has ever played against.

Van der Westhuizen died on February 6 aged 45, six years after he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

Regarded as one of the greatest No 9's in history, he helped the Springboks win the 1995 World Cup and was capped 89 times by his country.

Johnson remembers playing against him on numerous occasions and explains why he was such a dangerous player

"He was unique as a player," said Johnson.

Joost van der Westhuizen of South Africa is tackled by Matt Dawson of England
Image: Joost van der Westhuizen takes on the England defence

"He was this big, tall scrum-half but had this ability to get very low - almost like he was made of elastic. Then he had that pace; that top end speed and strength.

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"In his pomp he was probably the most dangerous player I have ever played against. That is not an exaggeration. As a No 9 he was touching the ball a lot of the time and he could score from anywhere. He could exploit a blindside and be gone - he was a lethal player.

"You have scrum-half's who have the ability to break but they don't have that top end pace to go 50 yards afterwards - he had that. If I was picking my all-time team he would be the No 9. He is in that conversation about the all-time best No 9.

"I went over to see him a few times and it was extremely sad to see him struck down by that illness."

One of Johnson's fiercest battles with Van der Westhuizen was in 1997 when Johnson skippered the British and Irish Lions to a superb Test series victory over the Springboks.

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With the 2017 Lions class heading to New Zealand in June, Johnson believes that the Six Nations has given coach Warren Gatland plenty to think about.

"I think he may have pencilled in a few names - some guys who perhaps we have not talked about and who have come into contention. The more established guys will be thinking that they need to get a grip and step up.

"Gatland will hoping that the youngsters continue to push and that the more established players show their experience. You need a blend though, you need your Alun Wyn Jones, your Dan Cole - your guys who have been there and done it. Then you are going to want some enthusiasm - some guys who are fresh and new who bring that wide-eyed excitement - there is nothing like the first time."

With one eye on the Lions tour, the Six Nations has certainly caught the imagination with England currently on top spot having won two from two. Those wins mean that England are on a record 16 match-winning streak and Johnson has been impressed by the strength in depth that Eddie Jones has developed.

Unsung hero

While the usual suspect may grab the headlines, Johnson singles out Dan Cole as arguably England's most important player.

England prop Dan Cole takes on Tom Francis of Wales
Image: England prop Dan Cole is key for England, says Johnson

"I think Owen Farrell and George Ford have been the linchpins for England and are really running the show from 10 and 12," added Johnson.

"However Dan Cole at tighthead is a constant in the England team - he does not get a lot of mentions but that is good in a way. It is like referees - you only mention them when they have bad games.

"England are pretty solid in the set-piece and I think they would miss him more than anyone - he is potentially England's least replaceable player."

Best position for Itoje

England have been hit by injuries - especially in the back-row and Jones has opted to move Maro Itoje from the second row to flanker. Johnson understands why the move has been made but explains why Itoje is better suited for the second row.

"Everyone is debating where his best position is but like Eddie said - needs must. They have got guys injured so they need to play him there. If he can do both then fantastic because it gives you options," Johnson said.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 17 2016:  Maro Itoje looks on during an England Captain's Run at AAMI Park on June 17, 2016 in Melbourne
Image: Johnson would prefer to see Itoje stay in the second row

"If you want to go for a big No 6 then you can stick him there, then put him in the second row for the last 20 minutes or so and bring a different type of player on.

"I would probably keep him in the second row though. Itoje is very athletic and strong and when you have him in the second row he is a very athletic and strong second rower. When you put him in the back-row, you are dealing with a lot of other athletic guys so my preference would be to keep him in the second row and to be the most athletic team you can be.

"I think if you have him and a Courtney Lawes and then a dynamic back-row then you have a dynamic back five."

Martin Johnson was speaking in his role as an ambassador for Standard Life Investments' principal partnership of the British & Irish Lions 2017.

All 10 games of the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand will be shown live on Sky Sports, starting June 3 2017.

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