Johnson feeling the pressure

Mood darkens in England camp as manager goes on defensive over selection
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The Independent Online

Generally speaking, England beat France in the games that really matter – the World Cup semi-finals of 2003 and 2007 spring immediately to mind – while France beat England in the games that do not.

Judging by the dark expression on Martin Johnson's face throughout the long build-up to tomorrow's Six Nations meeting at Twickenham, he has reached the very sensible conclusion that his next 80 minutes in Test management could not possibly matter more. If he felt he could get away with it, the old Leicester hard-head would slip on his boots and play in this one himself.

During his time as captain, Johnson took the red-rose collective to top spot in the world rankings and kept them there for quite a while. During his time in the boss man's chair, he has taken them due south to eighth – an out-of-the-way kind of place traditionally inhabited by Celts and South Sea islanders, not Englishmen. Should the French, still experimenting with personnel but some way ahead of their hosts in planning for the next World Cup in 2011, walk away with the spoils this weekend, the hirers and firers on the Rugby Football Union's management board who appointed the former skipper a year ago will find themselves squirming in their seats.

Johnson himself has been feeling just a little tender about things this week; certainly, he has been in no mood for prolonged public inquiries into the more controversial areas of team selection. He appeared wholly exasperated by the latest salvo of criticism aimed at his captain, Steve Borthwick, and was fiercely defensive of the outside-half Toby Flood. But it is patently obvious that both players are in danger of being steamrollered by a media bandwagon rolling ever faster towards them and, as a consequence, are in dire need of exceptional performances tomorrow. An England defeat may leave them horribly exposed ahead of the final game of the Six Nations campaign, against Scotland a week today.

Under these circumstances, then, it is difficult to think of a more perilous fixture. This is not a vintage French side – far from it – but in Thierry Dusautoir, Sébastien Chabal, Imanol Harinordoquy, François Trinh-Duc, Yannick Jauzion, Mathieu Bastareaud and Cédric Heymans, they bring with them half a team-full of individual match-winners, which is approximately half a team more than England can offer. Heaven knows, the Tricolores know what it is to be out-muscled by a red-rose pack, but the selection of the coach, Marc Lièvremont, is designed to minimise the prospect of it happening this time. If they square the argument over possession and territory, they will be threatening indeed.

"I put them right up there with Ireland and Wales as a team in with a shout of the title – especially after witnessing the quality of their performances against those two countries," said Johnson, who was particularly alert to Lièvremont's choices in the boilerhouse department, where Jérôme Thion has been recalled to partner Lionel Nallet, the captain. "They've given themselves a tough, grafting lock combination," said the manager, who knows a thing or two about these things, having famously mastered the art and science of second-row play. "I think they'll be a challenging proposition in all phases."

It is on the subject of second-row selection that Johnson is finding his judgement being challenged most aggressively. Handing the veteran engine-room stoker Simon Shaw a start was warmly applauded by most pundits. However, some parted company with the manager over the demotion of Nick Kennedy, the line-out specialist from London Irish. They thought Borthwick should have made way, despite the captain's epic work-rate in the recent defeats by Wales and Ireland. Needless to say, Johnson was having none of it.

"Steve is doing a good job for us, both as a captain and as an all-round lock," he insisted. "He's the kind of forward we can play in all sorts of games, at all times. He has a high tackle count, he's a strong scrummager, an excellent line-out organiser." Johnson is digging in his heels on this one, and as many an opponent has discovered down the years, that stubborn streak is not easily overcome.

But the stubbornness of a single individual, even an individual constructed on Johnson's scale, does not add up to much in the face of 80,000 malcontents in the Twickenham stands. The last time England played at home, against Italy last month, there was a good deal of unease amongst the faithful, and as the manager admitted, it was a dangerous sign. "As we always told each other during the time when we were winning all our games there, it is for the team to get the crowd into the game, not the other way round," he said.

No arguments there. But when he was reminded that during England's glorious spell in the early years of this decade, Clive Woodward often raised his head above the parapet before potentially difficult matches and gave voice to his expectation of a victory, he declined to do likewise. "You have to be pretty sure of your ground before you start making statements like that," Johnson said. And when did he think he might be sufficiently sure? "When I feel it, I'll let you know," he replied, sharply. It was not exactly a comment dripping with confidence.

Twickenham teams


15 D Armitage (L Irish)

14 M Cueto (Sale)

13 M Tindall (Gloucester)

12 R Flutey (Wasps)

11 U Monye (Harlequins)

10 T Flood (Leicester)

9 H Ellis (Leicester)

1 A Sheridan (Sale)

2 L Mears (Bath)

3 P Vickery (Wasps)

4 S Borthwick (Sarac, c)

5 S Shaw (Wasps)

6 T Croft (Leicester)

7 J Worsley (Wasps)

8 N Easter (Harlequins)

Replacements: 16 D Hartley (Northampton), 17 J White (Leicester), 18 N Kennedy (London Irish), 19 J Haskell (Wasps), 20 D Care (Harlequins), 21 A Goode (Brive), 22 M Tait (Sale)


15 M Medard (Toulouse)

14 J Malzieu (Clermont)

13 M Bastareaud (Stade)

12 Y Jauzion (Toulouse)

11 C Heymans (Toulouse)

10 F Trinh-Duc (Montpell)

9 M Parra (Bourgoin)

1 L Faure (Sale)

2 D Szarzewski (Stade)

3 S Marconnet (Stade)

4 L Nallet (Castres, capt)

5 J Thion (Biarritz)

6 T Dusautoir (Toulouse)

7 S Chabal (Sale)

8 I Harinordoquy (Biarr)

Replacements: 16 B Kayser (Leicester), 17 T Domingo (Clermont), 18 L Picamoles (Montpell), 19 J Bonnaire (Clermont), 20 S Tillous-Borde (Castres), 21 F Fritz (Toulouse), 22 D Traille (Biarritz)

Referee S Dickinson (Australia)

TV and kick-off BBC 1, 3pm kick-off tomorrow