James Lawton: Glimpse of All Black frailty will warm Johnson's heart as he searches for spirit of '03


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For a little while it seemed impossible to exaggerate the waves of well-being rising up from the spruced-up old citadel of Eden Park, Auckland, at the start of the seventh World Cup.

Down in Dunedin, England were surely in the same listing South Sea canoe as the rest of the contenders.

The All Blacks, with quite a bit of their powder kept dry, were firing on all fronts, their coach Graham Henry was looking more like the Great Redeemer once embraced by a grateful Welsh nation than the Grim Reaper whose excessive tinkering is still blamed by many of his countrymen for the last of his team's inexplicable failures in five World Cups and, if some of the running had been any more fluent and the passing more imaginative, Irish referee George Clancy might have been tempted to call the whole thing off.

Right up to the moment, that is, when Alisona Taumalolo reminded us that Tonga is supposed to be a warrior nation which four years ago in Nantes hit England so hard they might have been driving individually issued runaway trucks.

He did it by rearranging the deportment of the hitherto immaculate Danny Carter so profoundly he was instantly transformed into a sack of discarded potatoes, Taumalolo celebrating some time later when he crowned the resulting siege of the New Zealand line by diving over for a try.

You may, like the old All Black hero Sean Fitzpatrick, a member of the only New Zealand World Cup winning team back in 1987, want to point out the final score was still 41 points to 10 and agree with Henry that the second-half shortfall in assurance and all-round untouchable brilliance was merely the fleeting result of a tortuous and tense build-up to the nation's quadrennial test of nerve and self-belief.

Yet there it was, for all to see, the most remarkable, rhythmic and well-oiled machine in all of world rugby breaking down while in full flow. It would've been less disturbing, Henry's frown seemed to say, if if didn't happen every four years.

Naturally, the fall-out at this point is cleared away easily enough. Carter reported himself fit in wind and limb after Taumalolo's brusque intervention into his life and captain Richie McCaw emerged from the passing embarrassment still looking every inch a legend of his game. However, it seems a bit futile to pretend that New Zealand achieved their primary objective, which was to announce both to the world, and perhaps more importantly, themselves, that this was the time when the nonsense ended, when sheer merit and consistency and rock-hard competitive values were made to take an appropriate toll on anyone unlucky enough to be standing in the way.

The project was working dreamlike when optional extras like Richard Kahui, Sonny Bill Williams and Israel Dagg explored so brilliantly their attacking possibilities that it was hard to remember someone as good as Conrad Smith had been given a night off. Yet so many times such a depth of choice has been the curse of a coach like Henry, a man of brilliant insight but sometimes fatal speculation.

Certainly, the sudden All Black log-jam of creative thinking and superb execution could only have lightened the steps of England coach Martin Johnson when he went to bed with his team's opening duel with Argentina this morning.

No one will ever accuse Johnno of interpretative whimsy. He has arrived in New Zealand, where he once absorbed so many of his rugby values, utterly faithful to his career belief in the value of doing that which you do best, to working to your strength at the expense of any mere fancy.

One of his great encouragements is the re-enforcement of this belief achieved by the team he led to England's World Cup victory in Sydney eight years ago. Shortly before taking office, he saw the revived England capacity to produce optimum performance in the least promising circumstances. Ravaged by the eventual champions South Africa in a group game at the Stade de France, England returned to Paris for the final after beating Australia in the quarter-finals and then showing too much nerve and fortitude for France, the hosts and conquerors of the All Blacks.

Now we can be sure Johnson is building fresh belief on the recent victory in Dublin, the evidence of a restored Jonny Wilkinson and the old capacity of England to win the same dreadnought battles up front. When you think of all the underachievement of the England football team, the absolute failure to build on the meaning of the 1966 World Cup triumph and the continued failure of the Premier League superstars to place one satisfactory performance beside another, the rugby men in Dunedin surely operate in a position of considerable moral strength.

In Australia they knew precisely who they were and what they could do – and it was a belief that, even though nearly broken by a pesky Welsh performance in Brisbane in the quarter-finals, grew stronger the nearer they came to the moment of decision.

When the French were broken in the semi-finals the fine scrum- half and leader Fabian Galthié held his head in his hands and said: "England played with extraordinary force and self-belief tonight. The more you tried the more hopeless it became because they seemed to have something inside them that we just couldn't touch. They were so strong; it was something that carried them forward."

For Johnson such is the challenge of these next few weeks. He has to help recreate something he did so much to shape with his own extraordinary level of commitment in those supreme moments of English rugby achievement.

It seems to be a special facility of the English rugby man. He may not always light up the sky with his inventions; indeed there are occasions when he sometimes appears to be operating at a less uplifting level, at least in terms of imagination, to some of his most oppressive opponents. But to an extraordinary degree for a decade or sohe has found a quality of strength that can carry him into another dimension.

George Cohen, a member of the only other England team to win a World Cup, noted the phenomenon when he travelled to watch his nephew Ben complete the family double in Sydney. "I asked to speak to the players before the game," he recalls, "but it didn't take me long to realise that this was a team which needed very little motivation. They had come together in the belief that they could be the best in the world. All I could say was that it was easy to recognise what they had. It was something I had only seen once before – and that was back in 1966."

Maybe Martin Johnson has already conjured such a mood. Perhaps he will call it up before this morning's challenge against Argentina. In any event, it may seem slightly less onerous work after seeing a shadow fall once more, and however briefly, over the best team in the rugby world.

O'Driscoll's shine must not be lost in search for stars

In one of many such lists, we are advised to watch out for potential stars of this infant World Cup.

The nominees include Ireland's Johnny Sexton, the man who has come to eclipse Ronan O'Gara and is displaying such sparkling wit, and New Zealand's versatile runner and inspired off-loader Sonny Bill Williams.

Another fancy is Samoa's pounding wing Alesana Tuilagi and Namibian workaholic Jacques Burger. There is also a strong case for the emerging Courtney Lawes, England's huge presence in the second row.

All of them are worthy of great study, no doubt, but sometimes the most compelling pictures are the ones that have been painted for quite some time. We shouldn't take them for granted, certainly when it could be that we will be seeing them for the last time.

Which means, surely, that we are obliged to savour all again the phenomenal work and unique spirit of Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll.