Rugby Union / Five Nations' Championship: Dooley out as England begin historic quest: Johnson has to follow in giant footsteps while Ireland look to new stand-off Malone for inspiration

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JUST when England might have been thinking their older campaigners would carry on forever, they were brought up short by the injury which put Wade Dooley out of this afternoon's greatly hyped visit to Twickenham by France. Martin Johnson, the 24-year-old Leicester lock, will win his first cap in Dooley's stead.

If there is any rough stuff about, Dooley for one would have known how to look after himself - though the last time he had to sit out international matches perhaps suggests otherwise. That was after Queensland's Sam Scott-Young had chinned him in the fist on tour in 1991.

Johnson was pulled out of last night's England v France A-game at Welford Road to replace Dooley, the severity of whose thigh strain had depended on who was talking. While the rest of the team were training at The Stoop and Dooley was under treatment, one official said he was missing because he did not like the weather, which, admittedly, was foul.

When Dooley, veteran of 35 years and 52 caps, emerged he said it was 'just a bit of twitch' and was confident of playing. Finally Geoff Cooke, the manager, conceded that the 6ft 8in stalwart was doubtful and five hours later, by which time Johnson - a midget of 6ft 7in - had arrived at the team's hotel in Richmond from Leicester, he was withdrawn.

During his four years with Leicester Johnson, 22, from Market Harborough, has had injury cares of his own. Having won two B caps last season, he missed last summer's B tour to New Zealand with a shoulder injury which also caused a two-month delay in his start to this season. To accommodate him at the front of the line-out, the tallest of them all, 6ft 10in Martin Bayfield, will move to the middle.

Otherwise England yesterday went through the usual Friday motions, which could not be said of the France lock, Olivier Roumat. Christophe Mougeot was called away from the A game last night in case Roumat does not recover from an upset stomach.

The French, in line with a policy they instituted for matches in Cardiff and Edinburgh last season, left their arrival in London until teatime yesterday, by which time they had started making more conciliatory noises than earlier in the week.

With England setting out towards an unprecedented third successive Grand Slam, today's game is wound up with more tension than is usual or healthy. Anglo-French bad blood arises specifically from last season's two Paris matches, in the World Cup and Five Nations' Championship, but has been in existence considerably longer.

For instance Pierre Berbizier, the coach, has been wondering what happened to 'le fairplay britannique' since the French team he led lost at Twickenham in 1989 and were subjected to 'insults and grimaces'. Having on Thursday railed against English iniquities, it was either pious or disingenuous of him yesterday to call for 'a major rugby event and not an event of things outside rugby'.

Berbizier is not excusing the loss of control that led to two French dismissals against England 11 months ago in Paris but he has spent too much time lately in effect blaming the fate of Gregoire Lascube and Vincent Moscato on English provocation. French players, too, can provoke, though he does have a point when he asks that the discipline imposed on those of other countries is as salutary as that his own men have suffered while French rugby has been trying to clean itself up.

Neither do the French have a monopoly on piety, which has been glowing like a halo over one or two Englishmen lately. But the likes of the hooker, Brian Moore, have an irrefutable case when they state that it was the French who had men sent off; moreover, that it is the French who account for a quarter of all international dismissals.

Moore, accused by Berbizier of spitting and swearing, said yesterday: 'It's a ploy, and a none-too-subtle one, to divert attention from their appalling disciplinary record. My own and England's disciplinary record speaks for itself - and so does theirs.' As for Cooke, he has had enough of the mud-slinging: 'It's of no interest to me at all.'

Of infinitely greater interest is the composition of the French team which, as is the way of the pre-match world, has been talked up by England but does also approximate to the best that can be put out. A rare event, indeed. 'They have normally helped us enormously by leaving players out or doing odd things,' Cooke said.

Among the oddities were the sweeping changes Berbizier made after the French defeat of South Africa. The upshot was defeat by Argentina and familiar internal upheaval which almost cost him his job as coach. In fact it is hard to imagine his surviving long if Will Carling's side were to win as comfortably today as they did against the Springboks.

With or without Dooley, England have such sturdy reliability in every area that a sixth straight win over France, which would be one of modern rugby's more remarkable statistics, is a fair prediction. All Cooke would now wish of his team is that they do it in style. 'The hardest part of our job is to persuade the players to take some calculated risks out there, to go out and not be inhibited by the fear of failure,' he said. As failure is no longer an English rugby habit, when it finally comes it will be unbearable.

Rock-steady Winterbottom, page 48

England A team win, page 49

(Photograph omitted)