England need Johnson at maximum pitch

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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson knew there was little chance of negotiating a half-hour question-and-answer session without being pressed on the "biff" issue, so he was on the ball when the moment arrived. "If the Irish want to waste their time trying to provoke me rather than getting on with playing rugby, that's fine," shrugged the beleaguered England captain, responding to a suggestion from the former Ireland coach Warren Gatland that a little Johnno-baiting might be on the Six Nations agenda at Twickenham on Saturday.

There is nothing "fine" about it, from England's perspective: the last thing they need is their captain turning pacifist on them in the face of a boots-and-all approach from an exceptionally physical Irish pack. Like it or not – and, in this increasingly sanctimonious rugby age, it is fashionable not to like it one little bit – Johnson is the red rose army's enforcer-in-chief, the man who makes a stand when the fur starts flying. Every international side has one – yes, even the Australians. The Persil-white Wallabies do not pick Owen Finegan for his tactical genius or his even-time sprinting.

Of course, the cheap shot is beyond the pale: the Lions lock knows he was out of order in punching the Scotland Test hooker Robbie Russell during Leicester's Premiership victory at Saracens last weekend, and has publicly said as much. However, Johnson is counted among the greats of modern rugby because of his ruthlessness on the field, rather than in spite of it. Ninety-nine per cent of his act is precisely what Clive Woodward, the England manager – or any manager, come to that – wants to see on a Saturday afternoon, and, while the other one per cent is less desirable, there is no guarantee that Johnson would be Johnson without it.

It remains to be seen whether he can operate at maximum pitch – "right on the edge, but knowing when to step back," as Woodward put it on Tuesday – against the Irish, having been headline-bashed from pillar to post for three days. Johnson considers this Ireland side to be the best in a generation, and believes they are as good as they are because of the ferocity of their approach at the sharp end. If he spends the game walking on eggshells, England will suffer.

"This could be a three-point game, even a one-point game," the captain said after yesterday's training run at Bagshot – a session that did not involve Mike Tindall, the Bath centre, who was suffering from a minor calf problem. "We will need to play a good deal better this weekend than we did against Scotland in Edinburgh. The Irish are mobile – they have a very fast back row – and I expect them to attack our basics, just as they did when they beat us in Dublin in October. We will not be able to cough up the amount of ball we turned over in Edinburgh and get away with it, and David Humphreys will not miss the kicks that Duncan Hodge missed. The home advantage suits us, but Twickenham is a problem for opponents only if we play well. There is no magic about the place."

There used to be a magical dimension to rugby in the Pacific islands: Fiji, Samoa and Tonga are the most exotic union strongholds in the world, bar none, and their contribution to past World Cups has been immense. Worryingly, there is now serious doubt over England's three-Test tour of the South Seas this summer. Francis Baron, the Rugby Football Union's chief executive, will give an update on the situation next week, but there is no sign of an agreement on dates and some Twickenham insiders believe the trip to be a non-starter.

Baron has sanctioned a number of scouting trips to Suva, Apia and Nuku'alofa, largely because of RFU concern at the standard of accommodation and training facilities. Added complications include Woodward's desire to rest a number of leading players ahead of next year's World Cup, and the qualifying tournament for the Oceania region, which includes the three major island unions plus Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands. Those matches have been scheduled for July and could clash with the proposed England Tests.

Matt Perry, England's most decorated full-back and a Test Lion to boot, will turn out for the national second-string against Ireland A at Northampton tomorrow night – something of a comedown for a player once held in the highest esteem by Woodward. Still, Perry will be glad of the exercise, having been elbowed out of the red rose set by Jason Robinson and Iain Balshaw. His Bath clubmate, Steve Borthwick, was not considered at lock because of injury, so Alex Brown of Bristol comes into the boilerhouse and Nick Walshe, the Saracens scrum-half, takes over the captaincy.