After phoney war, Johnson backs England to win battle that matters

Manager tells his players they will have to be on top form to snuff out French danger
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It is fully 20 years since the pugnacious little England hooker Brian Moore treated the French public to a crash course in basic Anglo-Saxon during a Five Nations game in Paris – the pitchside microphones picked up every scatological syllable of his gap-toothed tirade – before dismissing their national team as "15 Eric Cantonas".

Two decades on, the French are the ones dishing out the insults, and if their approach is just a little more poetic, more Rimbaud than Rambo, the intention remains broadly similar. A case, you might say, of déjà vu, all over again.

Yet there is a pungent whiff of something different about this evening's meeting at Twickenham. The general expectation, for the first time in living memory, is that England will attempt to play the rugby, with France trying to stop them. This is not in the natural order of things, but it is the way the sporting public in both countries appear to see it. Chris Ashton has a hell of a lot to answer for, turning the world on its head in such cavalier fashion.

When this was put to the England manager Martin Johnson yesterday, he brought his beetle-brows together in a characteristically furrowed frown and shook his head in disbelief. "I tend to disagree with this idea that Ashton is the biggest superstar we have in our game," he said. "We still have Jonny Wilkinson in the squad for a start. The way it's being worked up, Chris just goes on to the field and scores tries. There's a bit more to it than that, actually. He works hard to put himself on the end of a break, but breaks have to be made. If he scores again in this game, great, but I don't care who scores as long as somebody does."

The manager was talking complete sense. Johnson has never been a great one for the cult of the individual: certainly, it is impossible to imagine him coming out with his own version of Clive Woodward's infamous line about maximising the number of millionaires in the England squad, a comment far too Mandelsonesque for comfort. In Johnson's world, people like Ashton do what they do because people like Dan Cole, Louis Deacon and Nick Easter make it possible for them to do it. The old New Zealand theory about rugby being a 15-man game in which 14 people find a way of giving the ball to Jonah Lomu cuts no ice whatsoever.

Neither does Johnson buy the argument that the French are coming here to stop England playing. Why would he? Les Bleus are not the reigning Grand Slam champions of Europe because they tackle better than everyone else, although their defence is, on a good day, highly effective. The major southern hemisphere nations fear them more than any other European team because they are capable of scoring heavily. Clément Poitrenaud may have his Monsieur Hulot moments at full-back, but he sure can play. Vincent Clerc? Dangerous. Aurélien Rougerie? Threatening. Yannick Jauzion? A midfielder enabler of the highest class. Dimitri Yachvili? Potentially lethal.

"How would I describe the mood amongst the players? I'd describe it as realistic," Johnson said. "If we allow the French to play they'll look fantastic, but we can have an effect on them by imposing our game and playing at our tempo. We know what they'll bring to Twickenham. They'll bring a powerful scrummage – some teams just look to survive at the set-piece and play their rugby elsewhere, but that's not a feature of the French psychology – and they have a very good driving maul.

"It's important for us to go into the game knowing that if we play as well as we can, we can have a crack at any team in international rugby."

The difference between this England side – vibrant, energetic, overflowing with self-belief – and the Eeyore-ish one of 18 months ago is obvious. Ashton, Ben Youngs, Ben Foden and Dan Cole have all been drafted into the side, and their collective optimism has been transformative. More experienced players, most notably Toby Flood and Mark Cueto, have responded enthusiastically, broadening their games and bringing the full force of their personalities to bear on team affairs. It is a rich mix.

"There are some fairly confident people among those we've introduced to Test rugby over the last year or so," Johnson acknowledged. "The majority of them have come from successful clubs, so they're used to winning. They've responded well to some good coaching and to the players they have around them, but essentially they're very single-minded.

"And then there's a real newcomer like Tom Wood, who might not have had the chances he's had in this tournament had Tom Croft not been injured. He spent a long time at Worcester, where things weren't that easy, so he's had to graft. I like his character a lot."

Chief among the fascinations of the game will be the level of resilience the youngsters show for, as Johnson openly admits, the French will "have their shots". So much depends on the England pack operating soundly at the scrum – no easy task, given the match-winning capability of Thomas Domingo, William Servat and Nicolas Mas in the Tricolores front row – and performing reliably at the line-out in the face of the threat posed by Imanol Harinordoquy, the elastic Basque from Biarritz. If the visitors dominate both these phases, or even come out marginally ahead, Johnson's relatively inexperienced side will have to draw on their last reserves of courage just to stay in touch.

Everything considered, then, there has always been enough in this game to keep the cognoscenti entertained without Marc Lièvremont, the coach of Les Bleus, subjecting the rugby world to his thoughts on the dysfunctionality of the Anglo-French relationship.

A little under a year ago, before the Grand Slam game in Paris, a noted chronicler of rugby in that country expressed the view that "when we play England, we have no balls". Perhaps Lièvremont chose to talk balls this week as a way of proving his side have them after all.

Red Rose and Bleus: Three famous victories

March 1991: England 21-19 France

A match remembered more for Philippe Saint-Andre's length-of-the-field try, started by the enigmatic Serge Blanco, although it was England who took the Grand Slam. Rory Underwood crossed the try line and England were aided by Simon Hodgkinson's four penalties and a drop-goal from Rob Andrew.

February 1995: England 31-10 France

This result was key in England's path to the Grand Slam. France had no answer as Tony Underwood scored twice and Rob Andrew kicked 15 from the boot. The mercurial Jeremy Guscott also added a try. England went on to beat Wales and Scotland to take the Five Nations crown.

April 2001: England 48-19 France

Jason Robinson's introduction in the 56th minute was the catalyst for England's win after they trailed 16-13 at half-time. England ran in a total of six tries, although the match will be remembered for Austin Healey's outrageous over-the-head kick from the base of a ruck to enable Mike Catt to score.

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