Johnson warns England to beware Irish backlash
Hosts are dangerous after injustice of Wales loss, says England manager as his side chase Grand Slam in Dublin
It is a little over five years since the South African referee Jonathan Kaplan cost England what would have been a precious victory over Ireland in Dublin's "fair" city, his error-strewn performance that day leaving a beetroot-faced Andy Robinson, then the red-rose coach, wondering – in public, at considerable volume – whether there was anything fair left in the sport. Unnervingly for this new England team, it is perfectly possible that the self-same official will do for them again tomorrow evening.
Kaplan will be a long way from Lansdowne Road when the Grand Slam game gets under way: to be precise, he will be in Paris, preparing to run the touch for his countryman Craig Joubert in the France-Wales game that brings this season's Six Nations jamboree to what is likely to be an anti-climactic conclusion. They will be thinking of him in Dublin, all the same. At least, the Irish will, and the England camp fear the hosts will harness those thoughts to their advantage.
Last weekend, Kaplan awarded Wales a try that should not have been awarded – not in a month of Sundays or a million years, whichever you prefer. That score, wholly illegal, condemned the Irish to defeat, wrecking their own hopes of a second title in three years, not to mention a fifth Triple Crown in eight. They have been spitting fireworks ever since, none more so than their captain, Brian O'Driscoll, who tends to react to blatant injustice in ways that hurt whoever happens to be his next opponents.
"You'd be feeling that anger, wouldn't you?" said Martin Johnson, the England manager, when asked yesterday how he might have responded to being on the rough end of Kaplan's idea of justice. "It's a pretty powerful thing, that emotion, and it makes Ireland dangerous." In other words, it would have been a whole lot better had the Irish lost to Wales in a way that hadn't left them ablaze with righteous fury.
Of all people on planet rugby, O'Driscoll is a fearsome competitor when he feels put-upon. Johnson, who played alongside him in the thrilling British and Irish Lions Test series against the Wallabies in 2001, tacitly acknowledged this in extolling the great centre's many virtues. "He may not be the biggest player in terms of physical dimensions, but he's very strong in contact, a brilliant tackler and is as good as anyone when it comes to contesting opposition ball," the manager said. "He's also a world-class finisher if you give him a chance 10 or 15 metres out. I'd say he's been the player of the decade as far as European rugby is concerned."
The absence of the long-serving, World Cup-winning midfielder Mike Tindall from tomorrow's proceedings therefore does nothing for England's chances of completing a first Grand Slam since 2003: a clean sweep secured in Dublin, against O'Driscoll and his fellow Irishmen, with a performance that was as good as anything delivered by a red-rose team in almost a quarter of a century. Tindall's success as interim captain, a position awarded him when Lewis Moody's knee went "pop" shortly before the start of the tournament, has been striking, but Johnson's relatively inexperienced side will feel the lack of his defensive know-how as well as his positive approach to the leadership duties.
Especially as the man now charged with dealing directly with O'Driscoll, the Bath back Matt Banahan, has next to no first-hand knowledge of the way life in midfield unfolds at Test level. Banahan, built to last by the firm responsible for Stonehenge, may have size on his side – "At least I weigh more than O'Driscoll," he said yesterday – but pounds and ounces are not quite everything in this game, as Jonah Lomu discovered to his cost every time he played against the Springboks.
"Losing Mike is a big blow for us," admitted Johnson, who knew in his bones early in the week that Tindall's ankle injury, suffered during the first half of last Sunday's narrow Calcutta Cup victory over Scotland, would force him into promoting Banahan from the bench and handing the captaincy to Nick Easter, the Harlequins No 8. "Apart from anything else, I really feel for Mike. But Matt has been around the squad for a couple of years now and we see him as a centre rather than a wing."
Apart from summoning the twinkle-toed David Strettle to fill the vacancy among the replacements – the Saracens wing made his international debut in Dublin, albeit at the Gaelic games cathedral of Croke Park rather than the "garrison games" mansion of Lansdowne Road – the coaching team decided to leave well alone in selection. Tom Croft, probably the most potent forward in the country when operating anywhere near his best, was considered for a starting place, but the Leicester flanker must make do with another tour of bench duty.
"Tom? He's like Jonny Wilkinson," commented Johnson. "There's always a case for picking a player that good, because we're talking world-class. But the people who have played right through the competition have performed well. Very well, in fact. And besides, the guys on the bench are the guys who finish a game and are therefore pretty important. If you're among the replacements, you're not there just for cover. You're there because you're a vital part of the team, able to do a job at a vital stage. We probably have as many caps on the bench as we have in the starting team."
Half the side named by Johnson have no idea what it is to play Test rugby on the far side of the Irish Sea, but the manager believes this particular cookie could crumble England's way. "They won't go into the game carrying any scars," he said. There again, he stopped a long way short of predicting victory. "How will it turn out? We won't know until we know," he said. "What I know already is that we'll have to be smarter than we were against Scotland. The players know that too, though. They're aware they'll need to be just that little bit better."
France v Wales: Gatland recalls North and tips teenage wing for the top
Wales coach Warren Gatland has tipped teenager George North to be "an absolute star" of the future after handing him his Six Nations debut.
The 18-year-old Scarlets wing will replace the injured Shane Williams against France tomorrow, returning to Test rugby after a four-game absence because of shoulder trouble.
North underlined his credentials by scoring two tries on his debut when Wales lost to South Africa in November. "We think George is a real quality player of the future," said Gatland, whose other enforced change from the side that beat Ireland means prop Adam Jones replacing dislocated shoulder victim Craig Mitchell. "In a year or two, he [North] is going to be an absolute star."
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