Martin Johnson has spent so much of his time in a minority of one – the only man to lead England to a world title; the only man to lead the British and Irish Lions on more than one tour, or to lay a captain's hands on the Heineken Cup two years running – it is tempting to wonder whether membership of a select band of half a dozen would mean much to him. Tempting, but facile. If old beetle-brows succeeds in managing his red-rose team to an unexpected Grand Slam here this evening, in the eye of what is certain to be an Irish storm of very serious proportions, he will join a club comfortably exclusive enough to satisfy even the choosiest of individuals.
Many a fine captain secured a clean sweep of the old Five Nations down the decades, and there have been no fewer than seven Slams since Italy joined the championship 11 years ago. It goes without saying that many a gifted back-room boss has supped from the same golden goblet. But only five men have done both: the revered Welsh midfielder John Dawes, three Frenchmen - Jacques Fouroux, "le petit caporal"; Jean Claude-Skrela, the great flanker from Toulouse; Marc Lièvremont, the current coach of Les Bleus – and a chap by the name of Woodward, who worked so closely with Johnson in seizing the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2003.
Lièvremont's star may be plummeting southwards following his side's defeat in Rome last weekend, and another reverse at the hands of Wales in Paris tonight may result in his force-fed goose being well and cooked as far as the forthcoming World Cup is concerned. All the same, Lièvremont has earned his place in the pantheon, and if Johnson follows in his footsteps at Lansdowne Road this evening, he will have earned it, too.
He has had his share of luck, both politically – the top brass of the Rugby Football Union, whose behaviour in establishing the Johnson regime in 2008 was nothing short of despicable, have cut him an awful lot of slack over the past three years – and in terms of personnel. When the former captain succeeded Brian Ashton as head cook and bottlewasher, players as good as Chris Ashton, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole and Tom Wood, all of whom start today (not to mention Courtney Lawes, who does not) were not even twinkles in the selectors' eyes. But in abandoning his initial heavy-handed approach to team management and lightening his touch, Johnson has shown himself to be more adaptable than anyone dared imagine during the first, gruesome 18 months of his stewardship.
Nick Easter, who leads the side this evening in the absence of the injured Mike Tindall, confirmed yesterday that the players are no longer bombarded with instructions from on high during the course of a game – or even, on one notorious occasion, during the anthems. "It's more about the players sorting things themselves," said the Harlequins forward. "Dylan Hartley has a voice in this, as does Louis Deacon when it comes to the line-out. Ben Youngs and Toby Flood also have a say at nine and 10, of course. When we go in at half-time, the coaches make two or three points and that's it."
Yet there is no one better placed than Johnson to talk meaningfully in the hours before kick-off here, for he knows what it is to secure a Grand Slam on this age-old rectangle of grass. Eight years ago, a few months before the World Cup triumph, he summoned from his playing colleagues one of the finest England performances in living memory: an overwhelmingly impressive, five-try, 42-6 victory over a distinctly useful Irish side who also happened to be chasing the Slam that day.
"This team is in a different place to that one," the manager said yesterday. "We felt we simply had to win the game in '03 because there was nowhere left for us to go. The majority of us had been together a long time and it was just ridiculous, the things we'd gone through in trying to complete a Slam. We have quite a new side now, which is why talk about our record against Ireland since the 42-6 match [one victory in seven attempts] is irrelevant. That record is not this team's record. Only four of the players who started the last game in Dublin two years ago are starting this one."
Ireland have a much more familiar look to them, particularly in midfield and in the back five of the scrum. Their powerfully energetic loose forward combination, sharpened by the introduction of the high-octane flanker Sean O'Brien, will set England different problems to the ones they struggled to solve against Scotland in last weekend's Calcutta Cup match, and the fact that a number of Johnson's players have yet to win a competition worth winning at club level, let alone Test level, leaves them vulnerable to the know-how of the successful Leinster-Munster seam running through the home line-up.
"We are where we are experience-wise," Johnson conceded, "so we'll just have to park that bit. Yes, there will be some fear involved, but that's good. You need some angst, to be on edge, ahead of an occasion like this. Can people handle it? I think the signs are good. We started this season with a match against the All Blacks and have tried to follow through game on game. Sometimes we've managed it, sometimes not, but at no stage have the players run away from anything.
"Ultimately, it all comes round to the same thing, whether it's a big game or a little game, whether you're favourites or not favourites. You have to control the ball, especially in the heat of battle when things are fast and frenetic, and you have to take the chances that come your way. Take care of those things, and the rest tends to take care of itself."
Simple, really. It makes you wonder why this Grand Slam lark generates so much fuss and bother.
Three key confrontations
Brian O'Driscoll v Matt Banahan
A genuine great squares up to Martin Johnson's great gamble – a one-time lock, moved to the wing by Brian Ashton and now seen as a centre with the potential to fill one of England's problem positions. If Banahan is not short of confidence, O'Driscoll is not short of anything.
Mike Ross v Alex Corbisiero
Ireland's front row is not the strongest, but Mike Ross, a former Harlequin, is big enough to make a difference: so big, in fact, that England's latest captain, Nick Easter, thought he was a "pastry chef" when he first arrived in London. Corbisiero, one of the finds of the tournament, must dominate.
Paul O'Connell v Tom Palmer
O'Connell, the 2009 Lions captain, has been punching his weight recently after a spell of post-injury blues. Palmer's line-out work, allied to an all-court game that maximises his excellent ball skills, has been a big bonus for England, but the Irishman is a proud competitor who makes his contests very personal.Reuse content