Seventy-five thousand pairs of eyes, not to mention the single all-seeing eye of the television camera, will be trained on Martin Johnson this afternoon as England attempt to exact a degree of retribution for their Grand Slam defeat in Ireland four months ago. If the world-weary captain goes within shouting range of an Irishman, let alone punching range, the whole rugby universe will know about it; if he so much as raises a hand to scratch his own ear, he will find the whistle-happy Australian referee Peter Marshall on red alert.
The way Johnson's luck is right now, he will be packed off to the sin-bin for scruffiness the moment he gets mud on his shirt: such is the price of stepping out of line in this most politically correct of rugby eras. Clive Woodward, the England manager, put considerable distance between himself and the Johnson issue yesterday by refusing to take questions on the latest ramifications of his captain's violent misbehaviour during last weekend's Saracens-Leicester game, but he could not avoid opening the curtain just a little on his thinking going into the second round of Six Nations matches.
Was the fulcrum of the England pack in the right frame of mind to handle the Irish forwards, an unashamedly physical bunch who would ruck a priest out of his own pulpit if they thought he was fair game? "We won't know that until after the match," Woodward conceded. It was a telling comment, the significance of which was not diminished by the manager's subsequent statement that, in his opinion, Johnson was "too strong a character to be distracted by some of the things being said about him".
Woodward was referring, at least in part, to the unexpected intervention of his French counterpart, Bernard Laporte, who openly accused the England hierarchy of getting it wrong in refusing to suspend Johnson for today's game. But he would go no further, even though he appeared less than impressed at Laporte's contribution. "I do not think this is an appropriate time to discuss this matter," he insisted. "I'll make my views known after the game."
By which time, we will know whether Ireland, with their sympathetic four-team provincial structure and designer fixture list, really have broken free of union's second division and joined the ranks of the élite. Woodward envies the access his opposite number, Eddie O'Sullivan, has to his Test players; he believes the national team dominates every aspect of rugby life in Ireland – a dominance the England team is unlikely to achieve while professional clubs hold primacy of contract. Yesterday, he described O'Sullivan's side as "one of the best Irish outfits we've ever seen", claiming that they were emulating "some of the things we've been trying to develop with our team. They have great balance and can play in a variety of ways."
"They will come into the game with a lot of confidence, and this is going to be a very big challenge for England. There are two outstanding teams playing tomorrow, which should make for an outstanding game."
Ireland are undoubtedly on an upward curve. They have beaten both England and France in the last year, and gave the touring All Blacks the mother and father of a hurry-up in Dublin last November. Peter Clohessy, their Johnsonesque villain of a loose-head prop, is playing every game as though his life depends on it (he has only a handful left before retirement, and intends to make the most of them); the Miller-Wallace-Foley combination is as hot as anything in world rugby; David Humphreys is the form outside-half in Europe; Brian O'Driscoll the form centre on the planet. If Kevin Maggs, the rough-and-ready exile from Bath, rattles Jonny Wilkinson's ribcage as he did at Lansdowne Road last time out, there could be real fun and games.
Under the circumstances, England would look a whole lot stronger with Danny Grewcock alongside Johnson in the second row. The Lions Test lock lost his starting place to Leicester's Ben Kay for the Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh a fortnight ago – the selectors, fearful of the Scottish line-out, plumped for Kay's natural spring over Grewcock's natural aggression – but the Irish forwards are a very different kettle of trouble.
When Grewcock is not around to clear out the rucks, England's possession tends to be scruffy. If it is scruffy today, Miller and Wallace will have a ball with the loose ball, so to speak. It is also fair to say that England are less settled than their opponents. While the Irish have a familiar feel about them, Woodward has performed major surgery by either dropping or relocating his personnel: strikingly, only Wilkinson and Neil Back are still in possession of the shirts they wore when the Grand Slam evaporated in Dublin in October. What is more, this tight five is a virgin unit, untested in the heat of battle.
England have not lost a home match for almost two- and-a-half years, and the Twickenham factor has led the bookmakers to favour them by 15 points or more. They should win, but it may be considerably tighter than the odds suggest.Reuse content