England suffer further World Cup woe as Easter and Wood join injury list
Problems mount for Johnson, who calls up Fourie as cover for match in Ireland which will show how battle-ready his side are
Martin Johnson remembers it as "a perfect storm": a toxic mix of English inexperience – "Some of our players didn't have the faintest idea what they were getting into until they got there," according to the red-rose manager – and Irish anger of the righteous variety following a controversial defeat in Cardiff six days previously, underpinned by a history of antagonism between the two nations stretching back centuries, little of which had anything to do with the game of rugby union.
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One way or another, the Grand Slam contest at Lansdowne Road five months ago was a painful moment for Johnson's team. But was it a transformative one?
Events here this afternoon, on the same patch of grass in front of a similarly boisterous home crowd, should go some way towards providing an answer to that question. England have arrived in town with a more knowing air about them: Mike Tindall, a World Cup winner who missed the defeat in March through injury, will lead a side strengthened, at least in terms of senior citizenry, by the presence of Andrew Sheridan, Steve Thompson and Jonny Wilkinson in the starting line-up. They also have a warm-up victory behind them, which is one more than Ireland can claim. Most importantly, perhaps, the likes of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Dan Cole have a better idea of what it takes to win at Lansdowne Road than they had back in the spring.
Such is the theory. In practice, injury issues are continuing to wreak havoc with Johnson's preparations. There was a double helping of bad news yesterday: first, the Northampton flanker Tom Wood, by some distance England's best player when he and his countrymen were last in these parts, was withdrawn from the bench after breaking down with calf trouble. Then it emerged that the Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter was suffering from a similar problem and is in need of a hospital scan. Easter was not ruled out of the game immediately, but the management were sufficiently concerned to summon the Sale back-rower Hendre Fourie – a specialist open-side operator who narrowly missed out on World Cup selection – as cover.
Given the continuing concern over Lewis Moody, the captain, there is more than an outside chance of Fourie being summoned to New Zealand at some point over the next few weeks. Moody did not travel here with his colleagues; instead, he remained in England for another exasperating weekend of rehab on his dodgy knee. Another injury doubt, the Leicester scrum-half Ben Youngs, has made the trip and took part in yesterday's pre-match run-out, but there is still no guarantee he will face Argentina in Dunedin a fortnight today. The manager is praying for glad tidings sooner rather than later, but is also preparing himself for a bulletin of the opposite kind.
Of course, Johnson was every bit as familiar with disappointment during his international playing career as he has been as manager. "Yes, we won the World Cup in '03, but think of the big games we lost leading into that," he said. "We let slip three Grand Slams in three seasons, against three different teams in three different ways. It was horrible, being called 'chokers' and never feeling as happy with life as we should have felt." Did he therefore agree with the view expressed recently by Lawrence Dallaglio – namely, that successful sides are forged in the fires of defeat as well as the flames of victory? "There's something in that," he conceded.
Back in March, the Irish sensed a weakness in the England mindset: certainly, they were surprised at how frivolous their opponents appeared during the pre-match preparations. "They were laughing and joking, as if they'd already won," said one of the green-shirted brigade a week or so after the game, which the hosts dominated to such an extent that they seemed badly short-changed by their 24-8 victory. Johnson has never gone quite that far in public, but he undoubtedly felt that some of his players were found wanting in the attitude department.
This close to a World Cup tournament – England fly to New Zealand on Monday to begin final preparations for the big event – there should be no attitude issues. The manager will both demand and expect a fully tuned-in performance, not least because the players involved here are those he considers worthy of his trust.
Johnson trusts Tindall as much as anyone, but for all the Gloucester midfielder's international know-how, this is a serious Test of his stature. His task today is twofold: he must ensure that the younger players stay on-message in the face of what is certain to be an impassioned Irish assault while convincing the manager of his value as an inside centre. This latter challenge is far from straighforward, for he has spent the vast majority of his top-level career in the outside role.
Might Wilkinson's promotion ahead of Toby Flood make the transition easier? "Jonny tends to vary his depth of positioning while Toby always wants to be on the front foot – but this thing about Jonny being more conservative and Toby being more attacking is a bit of a myth," he replied. "You'll always find subtle differences between No 10s, but they're not as great as people make out."
There are also – as Johnson well knows, having picked enough of them for England – differences between No 12s. As things stand, he has yet to find one who truly fits the bill. Over to you, Mr Tindall.
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