Tom Johnson admits it has been a “phenomenal journey” as he this week brings the curtain down on his career with newly-crowned Aviva Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs.
Brought to the Devon club in 2007 from Coventry, the 34-year-old forward has been an integral cog in the Exeter machine in recent years.
One of just a handful of players who remain from the Championship-winning side of 2010, Johnson has been a standard bearer for the Chiefs, not only helping the club to establish themselves as a proven force within English rugby, but also that of European rugby as well.
At the same time, his all-action displays won him many admirers, not just here in the Westcountry, but much further afield, including with former England coach Stuart Lancaster who handed Johnson his international debut in 2012.
The first of a new breed of international stars here at Sandy Park, Johnson took on the elite of the modern-day game, tackling the likes of South Africa, Australia, Argentina and New Zealand on his way to winning eight caps for his country.
In a career loaded with many high points, Johnson admits being part of the Chiefs squad who last weekend lifted English rugby’s top prize offered the perfect and fitting finale to a wonderful playing career.
“When I sit back and take stock of it all, it’s been a phenomenal journey,” he said. “Coming here initially with Coventry and playing, it kind of lit my ambition. I knew then that this was a club going places and that if I ever got the chance to come here, I would have to take it.
“Thankfully, the chance came and the rest is history as they say. We had two close campaigns under Pete Drewett in the Championship and then we had that promotion-winning year with Rob [Baxter]. That was a great season and something very special to be part of.
“However, I remember rocking up that summer for the first season in the Premiership and things were already different. I wouldn’t say the boys had changed too much, but the whole feeling, the whole set-up, it was completely different. The tempo, the tactics, the expansion, it was all on another level.
“As a player, it was great see that we weren’t going to just make up the numbers. We wanted to give ourselves a fighting chance. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but if we we’re going down, we were going to down fighting and firing shots.”
As it proved, the Chiefs – who opened their top-flight account with a home win over Gloucester – need not have worried too much. An eighth-place finish had the doubters choking up on their pre-season predictions, while for the club – and Johnson in particular – it was merely the start of a whole new adventure.
“If you look at the squad at that time, we had been together for a long time, but Rob put his trust in all of us to go out each week and deliver,” added Johnson. “Obviously the first game against Gloucester set the tone and gave us real belief. At no stage did we ever feel we had pressure on us, just because we were never in that bottom two or scrapping for wins.”
Over the subsequent years, the Chiefs and Johnson continued to grow in stature. Initially given his chance with the England Saxons, Johnson did not look out of place on the international stage and in 2012 he became the first Exeter player since Martin Underwood, 30 years previous, to pull on the famous Red Rose jersey against South Africa.
“Getting called up by England was massive for me,” continued Johnson. “Having go on the Saxons tour previously, it gave me that little bit of confidence. I then had a really good game against the Barbarians and from there I got the six shirt to go to South Africa.
“It was unbelievable, but I knew I could do it. From playing in the Premiership and Europe, all of a sudden I was now lining up against the Springboks, it was kind of mind-blowing.”
Returning as a fully-fledged international, Johnson continue to deliver for both club and country. Expectation levels – as you’d expect – grew by the day, but he continued to play a key role in the rise of the Chiefs.
A senior voice within the Exeter changing room, Johnson admits breaking out of that culture will take some doing, but he knows he leaves the club in a great position.
“The changing room can be pretty brutal at times, but it’s also a great leveller and can knockout any egos,” explained Johnson.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve been before, everyone is treated as equals.
“Yes, the young guys take the mick out of the older guys at times and vice-versa, but they also appreciate that us senior guys have been there, done it and seen it. They, however, are the future of the club and it’s important they take over the mantle and help the club to progress even further.
“Being part of the club for all these years has been amassing. Yes, I’ve been frustrated at times, but that happens. As I said, I have been very lucky to be part of the Chiefs during some very special years. Personally, I’ve gone from the Championship to playing for my country and then being part of a squad that’s just won the Premiership. Not too many can say they’ve done that, so I’m very proud of that.
“I’m more than happy with the contribution I’ve made, but I know I now have another chapter to move onto in my life. I'm lucky to be able to leave on my terms and now I’m really looking forward to what life brings next for me and my family.”
Keen to be very much part and parcel of the local community, Johnson says he has no plans to up sticks and leave the area.
Instead, he is already well advanced in plans for his new career, which will see him work closely in both health and fitness.
Already Johnson has started working with a number of clients as a personal trainer, whilst it will not be too long before he takes on a new and exclusive PT role at Lympstone Manor. He is also in the process of setting up a bespoke fitness studio in the East Devon area.
“It’s exciting times for me and my family,” he added. “Although I’m not going to play rugby any more, I will still be following the club closely and keeping in touch with people. Being part of the parade on Monday to celebrate the title, that was just unbelievable.
“It’s not until you seen scenes like that you realise just how much the club means to people locally. As I said, I’ve been very lucky and privileged to be part of the Chiefs for so many years and I will never forget the opportunities and experiences they have given me.”