Johnson shows rare diplomacy in refusing to play hate game
England manager passes up chance to hit back at French counterpart in verbal battle ahead of crunch contest
During his decade-long shift in the dungeon-dark depths of the England scrum, Martin Johnson was never far from abandoning the "stiff upper lip" approach to international rugby, as defined by many an old-school-tie lock of yesteryear, and giving someone a fat lip instead. More Wade Dooley than Bill Beaumont, basically. Now, three years into his stewardship of the national team, he has discovered diplomacy, and if people find it a bore... well, that's their problem.
There were those among the manager's small audience yesterday who would have killed for an anti-French barb or two in response to the weekend comments of Marc Lièvremont, head coach of Les Bleus, who, for reasons best known to himself, played the hoary old "everyone hates the English" card by way of accelerating the build-up towards the important Six Nations contest between the two sides at Twickenham on Saturday. Johnson was having none of it. In fact, he was comprehensively trumped on the badinage front by Toby Flood. "I quite like going to Paris, so it's a little frustrating knowing they don't like me over there," remarked the outside-half.
Entertainingly, Flood spun a yarn about the current England players, every man-jack of them, being "arrogant bastards in the changing room" before emphasising that in reality, they are a "level-head, completely secure group of people who are as competitive as the next men without screaming and shouting about it".
He went on to make the serious point that sportsmen are sportsmen the planet over. "There are members of this team, like Tom Palmer and Jonny Wilkinson, who are based in France and see the French players every day," he said. "Sportsmen behave much the same towards each other wherever they are in the world."
Like Flood, who considered Lièvremont's attack on English "insularity" and the country's apparent obsession with "their national flag, their hymns, their chants, their traditions" to be "part and parcel of a heritage that goes with the territory", Johnson gave the impression that he would have been more surprised if the Frenchman had kept his thoughts to himself.
"There is history involved in all this," he commented, "and most of it is not rugby history. There was some talk flying around last week, and there'll be a bit more said this week. I don't get involved with this stuff: while I know you'd all love me to, I have no intention of doing so. The chat thing is over-rated: some guys get into it, some don't and others won't know what's been said.
"But I do quite enjoy it – it's what makes the tournament fun. All I know is that this is a big game, it will generate hype and pressure, and it's exactly the kind of match you come into the sport to experience. And I know everyone in England wants us to win this weekend, even if it's a different matter around the rest of Europe."
Predictably, Johnson restored the captain Lewis Moody to the elite squad following the Bath flanker's 20-odd minute comeback performance for Bath towards the end of their highly impressive Premiership victory over Northampton at the weekend. Moody missed the first two rounds of Six Nations fixtures because of knee trouble, but if he performs well in today's heavy-duty training stint at the team base in Surrey, he will stand every chance of returning to the starting line-up against France.
"We hope that he's in the right place physically, because that will affect the mental side," said the manager, who places a very high value on Moody's rugby temperament – a wholly positive mix of gung-ho competitiveness and can-do optimism. "It's early in the week. We'll know more after Tuesday," Johnson added.
There was some chopping and changing around the edges of the squad yesterday. Joe Worsley, the veteran Wasps back-rower, suffered a neck injury at the weekend and was replaced by the Harlequins captain Chris Robshaw, a paragon of consistency who might consider himself deeply unfortunate not to have made the Six Nations cut in the first place. The other back-rower in the mix, Tom Croft of Leicester, was considered, but not for long. The Lions blind-side specialist featured for the Tigers on Saturday evening, but 20 minutes' rugby in three months is not ideal preparation for the rigours of a meeting with France. Croft will stay with his club for the next couple of weeks.
Alex Corbisiero, the young London Irish prop who made his international debut against Italy 10 days ago, was also summoned. The senior England loose head, Andrew Sheridan, has recovered from the ricked back that cost him an appearance against the Azzurri, but an ankle injury suffered by the regular bench prop David Wilson late in the Bath-Northampton match left Johnson short of a front-rower. Corbisiero can now expect to be involved against the French, albeit as a replacement.
War of words
The build-up to this Saturday's England-France match has been dominated by cross-channel chuntering:
Tom Palmer (last week): "Everyone hates the English and everyone raises their game when we come up against them. England also has the biggest union in the world and it's always good to beat the big boys, isn't it?"
Marc Lièvremont (on Sunday): "We have a bit of trouble with the English. We respect them but we don't like them. You couldn't say we have the slightest thing in common with them. We left Dublin last weekend with the encouragement of all the Irish, who said: 'For pity's sake, beat the English.'"
Toby Flood (yesterday): "I quite like going to Paris, so it's a little frustrating knowing they don't like me over there."
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