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One of the Wallaby all-time greats Peter Johnson died suddenly last night of a heart attack, aged 78.
In his 42 Tests, five as captain, Johnson was a hooker supreme, best summed up by one of his Randwick teammates who went on to coach the Wallaby Rugby World Cup champions in 1991 – Bobby Dwyer.
“Johnno was before his time, he was a brilliant striker of the ball, and a brilliant ball-handler in general play, he set a new benchmark for hookers,” was Dwyer’s summation.
It must be added that was in an era where halfbacks actually fed the scrum in the centre of the tunnel.
Johnson will always be one of my favourite footballers over 50 years.
Not only was he fascinating to watch for the full 80 minutes, but the beers afterwards as we relived those minutes with him and his delightful wife Sue, were even more absorbing.
Especially after one club game at Coogee Oval after a week of unbelievable downpours.
The entire field was covered in water, quite often ankle deep.
In one collapsed scrum, Johnson was face down and couldn’t breathe with the weight of the scrum on top of him.
“I genuinely thought I was going to die, but thankfully I was really fit and could hold my breath for a long time, otherwise I was a goner,” he recalled.
All that meant was an extra beer or three was required to keep retelling the saga to those who wanted a run-down.
“Johnno” was never ever dull, he had a wicked sense of humour, and once he retired he wrote about rugby every week in the Sunday Telegraph.
There was only one problem with that, he had such an enormous grip on the English language, you had to have a Thesaurus handy to keep track of what he was saying, he often used words I’d never heard of.
But that was Peter Johnson, everything he ever did was of the highest quality.
He was one of the most inspirational Wallabies that has been my privilege to know.
He raised the performance bar high for himself, and in the process lifted his teammates as well, be it for Randwick, where he played 239 games, for NSW, and the Wallabies.
One of Johnson’s most cherished moments was squaring the series with the Springboks 2-2 in South Africa to become the first touring side to win two consecutive Tests against the Boks sine the Lions in 1896.
The late great Dr Danie Craven once told me that Wallaby side was the best he had seen in South Africa.
So Peter Johnson always led a full and very successful life.
In latter years his competitive spirit was well catered for at Manly Golf Club where he was a long-time member, always walking, never using a cart.
That he died sipping a gin and tonic with wife Sue at home last night, just 17 days before his 79th birthday, has shocked the rugby world.
To Sue, speaking on behalf of his army of friends, we are privileged to thank Peter Johnson for the memories that made him a Wallaby legend.