Johnson relishing toe-to-toe battle with wounded Springboks

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.

Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect