Johnson gives little currency to bookies' odds-on predictions
England have found themselves up to their necks in Calcutta Cup trouble so often over the past couple of decades, Martin Johnson's refusal yesterday to shout the odds on behalf of his Grand Slam-chasing team ahead of this year's outbreak of mutual loathing was entirely understandable. Advised that the bookmakers were quoting the Six Nations favourites at 1-14 to beat the Scots at Twickenham on Sunday, the red-rose manager reminded his audience that "none of the bookies are playing the game" before adding: "If it will be a big result for them if they leave London with a victory, it will be just as big a result for us if we win."
By comparison, the Scottish camp were positively outspoken – an interesting approach, given the low-rent nature of their most recent Six Nations performances. "Will England treat us with the respect we deserve?" asked the defence coach Graham Steadman. "I'd have to question that. I'm sure they'll have one eye on the Grand Slam, and the bigger picture for them, I dare say, will be the fixture with Ireland over in Dublin. They will see that as more of a challenge than the one they're facing this weekend, but I know what the Scotland players are capable of delivering."
On the most recent evidence, they are most capable of delivering tries to the opposition, generally wrapped in nice little gift boxes with pink ribbons on top. Their defeat by the Irish last time out was an absolute shocker from a defensive point of view – or, if you prefer, from Steadman's point of view – and with Chris Ashton and Ben Foden currently spearheading England's attacking game with such panache, things are unlikely to be any easier for the Scots this weekend.
"They are playing with a lot of confidence, England, and they have strike runners right across the park," Steadman conceded. "If we're not well organised in broken-field situations, they'll cause us problems. Our transition from attack to defence has not been at the level we'd expect. At times we've been a little naive in putting ourselves under pressure by over-playing things in certain areas of the field, and we've been punished severely for it."
Yet for all that, the former rugby league coach was bullish about cramping Ashton's inimitable style. "He's on six tries for the tournament at present and I'd like to think it will stay at that," Steadman said. Red rag to a bull? We shall see.
Johnson shed precious little light on his selectorial thinking, but the decision to release the Sale outside-half Charlie Hodgson suggested that the first-choice playmaker Toby Flood, restricted to "limited training" because of an Achilles injury, will recover in time. There are doubts over the veteran lock Simon Shaw, who picked up a groin problem last week, so Courtney Lawes, fresh back in the squad after injury hassles of his own, may return to the mix. So too may another recent absentee, Tom Croft, following Hendre Fourie's return to Leeds for this weekend's important Premiership meeting with Northampton.
Whatever the shape of the line-up – Johnson, increasingly fond of leaving his announcement until the last possible moment, will declare his hand on Friday – there is an expectation in the England camp that this game will be easier on the eye than last year's drawn contest in Edinburgh. "When I look back on that, we spent the last three minutes in the Scotland half, two and a half minutes of which went on resetting scrums," the manager said. "This time, we have a referee [the Frenchman Romain Poite] who is very good in that area."
Victory assured, then? Hardly. "In many ways, this is an easy game for Scotland because everyone is talking about us," Johnson warned. "If we go in thinking 'they're not South Africa and they're not France' and they come down with the right mindset, we'll find ourselves in trouble very quickly. You need the right amount of edge and anxiety whenever you play at this level. Rugby is a game where you must impose your will and your desire before you can establish an advantage."
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