Rugby Union: Johnson the brute force of England

World Cup countdown: Combative captain a man alone as Welsh confidence soars and Scots rediscover winning form
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England 36 Canada 11

JUST LIKE old times, then: Lawrence Dallaglio back in his pomp, Martin Johnson back in the dock, and England back at that familiar fork in the road where planning and execution give each other a hug and a kiss and go their separate ways. The red rose brain cells were fully engaged at a quarter-full Twickenham on Saturday night and their legs were as willing as ever; crack as many jokes as you like about all that macho bonding on semi-tropical islands and army assault courses, these boys are seriously fit. But their hands were nowhere to be seen and, as Max Bygraves never tired of telling us, hands are what you need.

Heavens, they could not even connect with one decent punch, which was hardly an ideal arrangement given that Gareth Rees and his proud posse of Canadian roughnecks were, how shall we put it, well in the mood. As usual, it was dear old Johnno who paid the price for the white-shirted pacifism that surrounded him. Having already taken a pasting on the floor from his opposite number, John Tait, he lost his rag with the fiery Dan Baugh, half garroted the poor Albertan petal, and was forced to swallow his first yellow card of the season.

The captain was characteristically unrepentant afterwards - "Of course I'll get involved if a colleague is being punched on the floor," he said with a dismissive shrug of those formidable shoulders - and he found sterling support from Rees, his rival skipper. "He's a second row, isn't he?" said the Canadian, a touch mischievously. "It's no good him poncing around out there. He's got a job to do." As for Clive Woodward, who could almost plot the course of his career as England coach by Johnson's various brushes with the law, well, he didn't see the incident, of course. Coaches never do.

But he might like to run his eye over the match video, just for interest's sake. His captain is a marked man these days and Johnson's chances of remaining at large throughout the World Cup campaign will be greatly diminished if he is the only Englishman willing to fight fire with fire. Given that the Italians and Tongans, let alone the All Blacks, are unlikely to take an overtly diplomatic approach to Pool B business come October, it might be sensible to identify one or two pugilistic alternatives. Danny Grewcock, who has a black belt in something or other, has obvious potential in this direction, as does the uncomplicated Phil Vickery.

Woodward is not at all amused by the fact that the forthcoming tournament will be a sin bin-free zone. "The referees want white cards and the coaches want white cards," he said after watching his side struggle to deal with the Canadians' streetwise tactics at the breakdown. "I can't believe we haven't got them. They would improve the World Cup no end because, as things stand, there are going to be an awful lot of technical infringements and an awful lot of penalties." True, but there it hangs. Bleating will not make one iota of difference, so England had better sharpen up their rucking and start hunting - and hurting - as a pack.

That lack of cohesion not only manifested itself in the rough and tumble, but in open acres too. There were any number of ideas buzzing around the midfield, and the two wings, Austin Healey and Dan Luger, brought real imagination to the party. But the ball retention was fairly desperate and the finishing far too hit and miss. Having secured well over 70 per cent of the ball and a good 80 per cent of the territory, England were only 11 points to the good as the game entered its 71st minute. The waste was far more criminal than anything perpetrated by Johnson.

Yet one or two profoundly influential figures made the most of the occasion. Will Greenwood was well worthy of the two tries he claimed on his return to Test activity - his game-clinching, blind-side strike nine minutes from time was particularly satisfying, for he beat both Scott Bryan and Bob Ross en route to the line - while Dallaglio was little short of sensational. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his degrading entanglement with the News of the Screws, it takes a special player to scale the mountain tops after three long months in the gutter.

Rees, a recent clubmate at Wasps, was full of admiration for the former England captain. "A world-class player is a world-class player and Lawrence gave England the spark they needed out there," he said. "Was I surprised by the quality of his performance? No, of course not. He's a professional, a very proud Englishman who is passionate about his country in the way I am passionate about mine. I was disgusted when that whole issue broke and I'm delighted he's risen above it."

All of which said far more about Dallaglio than Dallaglio was likely to say about himself; the bad times have left their mark on him and as he shuffled tentatively towards Twickenham's Good Health Bar - a misnomer if ever there was one - he looked like a man who would rather take up propping than talk to the press. He did offer a few brief, dignified words: "Getting picked for England is an honour and not one I take for granted," was one line; "Tonight was not about Lawrence Dallaglio, it was about the England team," was another, but he clearly wanted to be elsewhere. Who could blame him? It will be a long, long time before he makes his peace with the fourth estate.

Still, he is paid to play, not rabbit into tape recorders, and on Saturday's evidence he will earn his corn twice over during the next few crucial weeks. In full stride - the outstanding No 8 spent the entire second half in galloping overdrive - his upright, chest-out style has more than a touch of the Michael Johnson about it, and, if the great American moves just a little quicker than the Italian Stallion, there cannot be a fat lot between them in the stamina department. After mutilating the 400m world record in Seville, Johnson talked about the opportunity coming at the right time. Maybe this World Cup is right for Dallaglio.

England: Tries Greenwood 2, Luger, Dawson, Perry; Conversions Wilkinson 4; Penalty Wilkinson. Canada: Try Stanley; Penalties Rees 2.

ENGLAND: M Perry (Bath); A Healey (Leicester), J Guscott (Bath), W Greenwood (Leicester), D Luger (Saracens); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), M Dawson (Northampton); G Rowntree (Leicester), P Greening (Sale), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), D Grewcock (Saracens), R Hill (Saracens), L Dallaglio (Wasps), N Back (Leicester).

Replacements: N Beal (Northampton) for Healey, 50; J Leonard (Harlequins) for Rowntree, 50; R Cockerill (Leicester) for Greening, 50; D Garforth (Leicester) for Vickery, 50; T Stimpson (Leicester) for Perry, 52; M Catt (Bath) for Guscott, 72.

CANADA: S Stewart (Bedford); W Stanley (James Bay), D Lougheed (Leicester), S Bryan (Balmy Beach), C Smith (Meraloma); G Rees (Bedford, capt), M Williams (Pacific Pride); R Snow (Newport), P Dunkley (James Bay), J Thiel (James Bay), J Tait (Cardiff), M James (Perpignan), R Banks (Bedford), A Charron (Bristol), D Baugh (Cardiff). Replacements: J Hutchinson (Suntory) for Baugh, 46; M Schmid (Rotherham) for Banks, 56; D Major (Burnside) for Snow, 64; R Ross (James Bay) for Rees, 71; D Penney (Henley) for Thiel, 76; M Cardinal (James Bay) for Dunkley, 79.

Referee: J Dume (France).

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