Born: 27 October, 1928
Died: 27 July, 2003 – Auckland
Test record: 34 Tests (1950-60) – 3 tries (9 points)
Tours: 1951-52 tour of Great Britain and France, 1954 World Cup, 1956 tour of Australia, 1957 World Cup, 1959 tour of Australia, 1960 World Cup
A towering figure in international rugby league throughout the 1950s and in Kiwis history, Cliff Johnson was named one of the inaugural NZRL Legends of League in 1995 and selected as prop and captain in the New Zealand Team of the Century in 2007.
The Richmond and Auckland stalwart’s tally of 70 matches for New Zealand included 34 Tests, of which he was captain in 14.
A 21-year-old Johnson broke into the New Zealand Test team during the 1950 home series against Great Britain, featuring in both matches as the hosts carved out a momentous 2-0 victory. He played in the sole Test against France in 1951 before embarking on the Kiwis’ tour of Britain and France at the end of the year.
Johnson turned out in all seven Tests on tour against Great Britain, Wales, France and British Empire, scoring his first Test try in the series-opening loss to Great Britain at Bradford. He also crossed for eight tries in a further 19 minor tour matches.
Injuries kept Johnson sidelined from New Zealand duties for the next two seasons, but he returned to play all three Tests against the 1954 Lions and two matches at that year’s inaugural World Cup. He played both Tests against the 1955 French tourists but withdrew from the end-of-year tour of Great Britain and France due to business commitments.
But Johnson was back on deck for the Kiwis’ 1956 tour of Australia, playing all three Tests in the second-row and scoring a try in the third-Test loss at the SCG.
Physically imposing, tough as nails and regarded as a shrewd tactician, Johnson was named as New Zealand captain for its 1957 World Cup campaign following the shock retirement of Tommy Baxter. He led the Kiwis from the second-row in all three matches at the tournament and a subsequent Test against Britain-France, and played for Rest of the World against champions Australia.
Johnson would retain the Test captaincy until the end of his career. He skippered New Zealand to a 1-all series result at home against Great Britain in 1958 and to a 2-1 series loss in Australia in 1959, reverting to the front-row for the latter and scoring a try in a morale-boosting third-Test victory in Sydney.
After steering the Kiwis to a 2-0 sweep of France in 1960, the 31-year-old farewelled the international arena at the World Cup later that year. New Zealand lost to host Great Britain and Australia but defeated France 9-0 at Wigan in Johnson’s last Test match.
Johnson also had the honour of captaining Rest of the World against the World Cup-winning Great Britain side and led the Kiwis in three post-tournament matches in France and England – the veteran warhorse’s last forays on the rugby league field.
A fine sailor, Johnson won the Southern Cross Cup series for New Zealand against Australia as crew on his own yacht, Tempo, in 1975. One of the Kiwis’ undisputed all-time greats passed away in 2003, aged 74.