James Lawton: Champion Johnson urges his fighters to punch their weight


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The Independent Online

It was as if Martin Johnson was already making his last stand here in a big hotel ballroom up the hill from the harbour. Dressed in training fatigues, sharp and terse as a champion about to enter the ring, he didn't so much announce a team selection – minus Mike Tindall – as draw a line.

After the three most tortuous, discomforting weeks of his extraordinary career, the England manager was almost eerily at ease with himself and his embattled circumstances as he left no one in doubt that Tindall's absence from the starting line-up and the forward-heavy replacement unit was euphemism-free.

Yes, the man who first lurched from grace in the Dwarfgate misadventure received a knock against Scotland but he would likely have been fit in time for tomorrow's quarter-final with France.

No, Tindall wasn't on the injured list, he was dropped – which was maybe another reason why the squad vice-captain was seen with his head in his hands at a training session earlier this week – along with Courtney Lawes and James Haskell.

It meant that if Johnson was in no mood to discuss once more the dislocations and distractions that have bedevilled him from the first days of the tournament, it was surely no reach of fancy to believe that in the bare details of his announcement he had made a quite thunderous statement.

Though Jonny Wilkinson no longer sees a kick at goal as one of the ultimate certainties of his ferociously dedicated career, he retained, Johnson made it clear, too many competitive furies to be discarded, even if it should happen Toby Flood, wearing Tindall's jersey, gets first strike at the French posts.

Johnson was plainly most torn by the demotion of Haskell, whose spirit and physicality are likely to draw him into the second-half action. But then the veteran Nick Easter had vital experience to bring. Tom Palmer, who replaces a Lawes suspended after the opening match with Argentina, is another who might offer in hard-nosed reliability a big compensation for a certain lack of spectacle.

Johnson brusquely dismissed a question about a certain shortfall in ticket sales for the duel with France – the New Zealand public could pay their money and take their choice – but the chances were that they would be missing a fascinating encounter between a team of undoubted strength, if not all-consuming form, and a French team for whom the journey between heaven and hell can be the shortest of Metro rides.

"With the French," said Johnson, "it doesn't matter what happened the last match or last year – you can write them off before a match, even during it, and they can make nonsense of it. Just think of what they did against New Zealand in two recent World Cups.

"In both games they were down and beaten but everybody knows what happened. The French can come alive at any time. No one should forget that."

There is a perceptible lift in Johnson when he talks of tomorrow's possibilities – the sense of a man who has wearied of so much that has recently interfered with the imperatives of moving forward which have always shaped his rugby thinking.

The more he talked yesterday, the more credence you could give to the analogy of a fighter, the sense of his liberation from long and frustrating days with the beckoning of the hard and potentially uncomplicated action.

For Johnson, though, there will be one great necessity as the southern night falls over the great cathedral of All Black rugby.

It is to be sceptical of stories of the mutinous, the demoralised and the anarchic French. "I don't buy stories about the splits in their camp," he says. "You could talk to me all night about them and I would still tell you that on Saturday they will come to play. They are always dangerous – and never more so when they have nothing to lose."

There was something of that last dimension in Johnson yesterday. He had made his choices and, it was hard not to believe, his stand. If he has had quite relentless difficulties, now he had a simple proposition to make to his troublesome crew.

Now the debate could be compressed into the rough eloquence of the sweet one-two combination of a defiant champion. His players could finally punch their weight – or go home. And Martin Johnson, more than of any of us, could have a little peace.