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Can England avoid Croking again?

Martin Johnson's back row holds the key to banishing ugly memories of two years ago against Ireland tonight, reports Chris Hewett in Dublin

Martin Johnson has an excellent sporting memory. An avid follower of American football, the England manager probably knows who played tight end for the Green Bay Somethings against the Colorado Whoevers in 1953 and might even be able to add precise details of height, weight, wife's maiden name and favourite breed of dog for good measure.

He can certainly recall forcing Mary McAleese, the President of Ireland, to walk halfway round Dublin in her mud-spattered high heels after refusing to stand in the right place before the Grand Slam match at Lansdowne Road in 2003 – not that he was in any sort of mood to discuss this particular incident yesterday.

The question today is whether he has a clear recollection of the events that unfolded at Croke Park, on the other side of the capital, two years ago, because if he and his comrades have forgotten a single second of that 43-13 defeat – quite the most desperate championship reverse in England's history – this evening's contest could be every bit as ugly. As the wise man said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Johnson was not in charge of the national team back then: the game took place more than a year before his predecessor, Brian Ashton, was stabbed squarely between the shoulder blades by his employers at Twickenham, who somehow arrived at the opinion that a place in the World Cup final and a runners-up finish in the Six Nations was a less than satisfactory return in a results-driven business.

But the former captain was the keenest of viewers, and he would have been less than human had he not drawn a sharp distinction between the poverty of the red-rose effort that night and the majesty of the performance four years previously. In 2003, he and the outstanding side he captained scored 40-plus points of their own after absorbing some characteristically molten Irish heat in the opening stages, subduing their hosts up front and then pulling away almost noiselessly, like an Aston Martin on an open road.

In '07, Ashton selected a one-paced midfield, a line-out pairing of dubious aerial ability and a back row that was neither quick nor knowing enough to stop the brilliant David Wallace lording it all over town. Clearly, an awful lot can change in the space of a few seasons.

There are signs that Johnson has learned the lessons of the recent past. Riki Flutey may not be the youngest inside centre to make a breakthrough at Test level, but he is a whole lot quicker on his feet than Andy Farrell was, and is therefore better equipped to ask a question or two of the Irish centres. It is also reasonable to suggest that Steve Borthwick and Nick Kennedy will at least attempt to interfere with the smooth working of the Irish line-out, rather than sit back and watch Paul O'Connell have himself a party. The manager could have tinkered in these areas, but resisted the temptation.

But tonight's back-row contest is another matter entirely. The Munsterman Wallace is still around, stronger and better than he was in '07, to the extent that he is everyone's favourite to make the Lions' Test side in South Africa this summer. On the blind side, the Ulsterman Stephen Ferris is playing out of his socks; at No 8, the Leinsterman Jamie Heaslip is in the midst of one of those purple patches that makes a player wonder whether the union code is anywhere near as demanding as everyone makes it out to be. "Heaslip is beginning to show himself as an international forward, Ferris has come in under the radar after galvanising a struggling Ulster team and Wallace is a very difficult customer to deal with," admitted the England forwards coach, John Wells. In other other words, this is quite a unit Ireland have put together.

In Cardiff a couple of weeks ago, the three London types in the England back row – James Haskell, Joe Worsley and Nick Easter – successfully cramped the style of a talented Welsh trio. But this will be more of an acid test. All Irish loose forwards like to "put it about a bit", as the saying goes, but this combination has a balance and a skill set that has Wells on full alert and should worry Johnson too. If the home side clean up in the loose and free a back division full to overflowing with dangerous runners, the visitors will do well to keep their hosts under the 30-point mark.

This week's distractions have hardly helped the cause. First, there was a new round of accusation and counter-accusation over England's chronic indiscipline; then, there was the culmination of the Matt Stevens drugs saga, which confirmed Johnson in his assumption that he would lose his most gifted footballing prop for two long years. Reassuringly from the management's perspective, the squalor of the Stevens affair does not appear to have impacted too negatively on the players.

"It's going to be tough for Matt, but he'll come back the stronger for it," said the hooker Lee Mears, who plays alongside – or rather, played alongside – Stevens in the front row at Bath and is pressing ahead with plans to join him in setting up a new coffee-house venture in the city. "I think we both knew he'd get two years. He has my full support, but it's made me realise how privileged I am to be representing club and country."

Mears would love nothing better than to bring this difficult week to its conclusion in a victorious fashion, but he was involved in the calamity of 2007 and the memory is not easily erased. When England next cross the Irish Sea in 2011, the new Lansdowne Road will be open and "Croker" will be strictly past tense. If truth be told, they can hardly wait.

Dublin debacle: Jonno's red carpet rumpus

The sight of Martin Johnson returning to Ireland with the England rugby team will evoke memories of an infamous episode from 2003. Prior to England's 42-6 victory, the Republic's President, Mary McAleese (below), was forced to walk on the grass as she greeted the teams rather than the red carpet after the then captain Johnson refused to move his team to the other side of the pitch. The IRFU president Don Crowley wrote to Mrs McAleese to apologise for the incident, while Johnson remained unconcerned. "With due respect, people don't come here to watch presentations," he said. "They come here to watch rugby. It's all a fuss about nothing."

In charge: Joubert stats

*The 31-year-old South African Craig Joubert, who takes charge at Croke Park tonight, had his playing career cut short by injury. After working in corporate banking for five years he followed his father in becoming a full-time referee.

*He hasrefereed games involving the former England cricket captain Kevin Pietersen.

*He officiated at England's 26-19 defeat to Wales last February.

*He is an avid poker player.