Rugby Union: Johnson faces a test of conduct

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The Independent Online
MARTIN JOHNSON goes into tomorrow's World Cup qualifier against the unfancied amateurs of the Netherlands knowing that his personal reputation as well as his country's honour is at stake. While it may be unthinkable and inconceivable that England will suffer a defeat at the McAlpine Stadium in Huddersfield, there is no such cast-iron guarantee that Johnson will manage to keep his infamous temper in check.

He has twice been caught throwing punches in internationals - one cost England a try against Argentina in 1996, and the second against New Zealand last November earned him a one-match ban. But Johnson is stoical in his acceptance of the responsibility that he now carries as a result.

"Discipline is a very big part of rugby," said Johnson as he fielded questions in his temporary role as captain of England in the absence of Lawrence Dallaglio. "But I can lose my temper and still do a good job."

The 6ft 6in Leicester lock, who completes a distinguished treble having captained the Lions on their triumphant tour of South Africa in 1997 as well as holding the same office with his club, is not dwelling on his self-control. He was more interested in the performance he expects from his team.

He is treating it not merely as another Test, but rather as the first of four big steps away from the horrors of the summer tour of the southern hemisphere when a shadow England side, stripped of its key players, was hammered ruthlessly by Australia, New Zealand (twice) and South Africa.

"This is something like a mini tour, in a way," mused Johnson. "We have to put a marker down against the Dutch. We do not want to lose any of the four Tests." And he insisted the side was very focused on the task ahead. "This morning's training session began slowly, but the attitude at the end was much better."

The irony of the setting - Huddersfield - is not lost on Johnson, England's eighth captain since the appointment of Will Carling in 1988. The prospect of a big Union match at the McAlpine Stadium brought a wry smile to Johnson's features. "We are in Huddersfield, the birthplace of Rugby League," said Johnson. "I think it's great that we are playing up here. It should have happened long ago. I can't see why Five Nations matches could not be staged away from Twickenham."

The former Ireland captain, Keith Wood, last night announced he will sign his international contract and donate his match fees to charity.

Wood was kicked out of the Irish squad after he refused to sign an Irish Rugby Football Union contract which would have allowed his name to be used for commercial purposes without his permission. "I have decided to sign the Irish international contract," he said last night. "The decision I made in not signing it originally is one I still stand by. However, I am driven by a need to play for my country. Hence I have decided to sign and stick to my word. I intend to give any international match appearance fee I receive this season to charity."

David Rees will continue his rehabilitation by starting his first Premiership One game for Sale against West Hartlepool at Heywood Road tonight.

Richmond could be punished following the postponement of tomorrow's Premier- ship fixture against Harlequins, due to a clash with a Reading FC game at the stadium they share.