Johnson relishing toe-to-toe battle with wounded Springboks

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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson has always been alert to the prospect of a rough Test match: he reads it in the tea leaves, smells it on the breeze, feels it in his bones. "This," the England manager pronounced yesterday, "will be as confrontational as it gets," before adding, with a glint in his eye: "That's the fun of it." If truth be told, the old Leicester hard-head would love to mix it personally with South Africa, the reigning world champions, at Twickenham tomorrow. Instead, he must content himself with watching Courtney Lawes do it, which is probably the next best thing.

Lawes has more than a touch of the Johnsons about him, playing as he does in the former captain's position and relishing the physical contest in precisely the same way. "I like a scuffle myself, every now and again," the young Northampton lock admitted when asked about his forthcoming meeting with the renowned Springbok enforcer Bakkies Botha, whose character type is less Jekyll and Hyde than Hyde and Hyde. "Anyway, what's he going to do? Start a fist-fight? He'll be off the field, and I'll enjoy myself playing while he's sitting there looking."

Warming to his theme, Lawes expressed an urgent desire to "see how good these guys are, see if I can compete with them". Might he think twice about standing toe to toe with Botha should the Springbok go after him with malice aforethought? "I never think twice," he replied. "Even when I think I might end up going backwards, I don't think twice." All in all, then, the thought of South African aggravation will not be keeping him awake tonight. "I'm not scared of them," he said, by way of confirmation.

Anyone judging the Boks on their error-strewn performance in Scotland six days ago might wonder why anyone should feel scared, but as Johnson acknowledged yesterday, South African teams are rarely to be found in charitable mood two weeks in succession. The manager was also wary of overblown talk about England as major contenders for next year's World Cup in New Zealand.

"I get a little concerned when people talk about us being the finished article," the manager admitted. "We're nowhere near that. A lot of the chat is based around one performance against Australia, and it's not often you see a game like that. This will be very different, because the Springboks aren't the Wallabies. You never quite know what you're going to get when you play Australia: they can pull things out of the bag and operate in different ways. They try to out-think you. The Springboks are also smart, but they're a little more consistent in their approach. You certainly know what you'll get with them. It's nose to nose. If you let them roll, they'll roll right over you."

Aware that a number of his fresh-looking elite side, Lawes included, have never faced the Springboks in a Test match of any description, let alone a backs-to-the-wall, cards-on-the-table contest like this one, Johnson had little hesitation in recalling two players who know what it is to beat South Africa – the centre Mike Tindall and the flanker Lewis Moody – plus the Leicester back-rower Tom Croft, who performed so brilliantly against them on last year's Lions tour. With Dan Cole returning at tight-head prop, England will field the side that gave the Wallabies such a memorable run-around a fortnight ago.

"We're picking our best players," Johnson commented. "The good thing is that a number of those best players are under 25. We could pick others without missing much of a beat and some people are unlucky not to be involved, but you want players to nail down their position, to say to their rivals: 'I have the shirt, and you're going to have to perform bloody well to take it off me.' You don't take it in turns at Test level. You want to make the shirt the most cherished thing in the game."

Wales, who have the unenviable task of attempting to deny the All Blacks another of their regular Grand Slams in Cardiff tomorrow, have made just the 12 changes to the side that messed things up so royally against Fiji a week ago. George North, the teenage Scarlets wing, holds his place, as do the Ospreys full-back Lee Byrne and his club colleague Adam Jones, who is an automatic choice at tight-head prop. Two others, the back-rowers Ryan Jones and Dan Lydiate, remain on duty, but will perform different roles.