Martin Johnson does not like it one little bit, but this is all about Martin Johnson. "I'm the one in charge, the one taking the responsibility," the World Cup-winning captain mused yesterday, on the eve of his first outing as England manager, "but while I wouldn't say I'm irritated by all the attention – people are saying the obvious things they were always likely to say – this is the players' time now." Except the players are not playing for any old Tom, Dick or Harry. They are playing for an iconic sporting figure who was controversially fast-tracked into the most powerful position in the red rose game.
The fact that Johnson's first opponents have never spent so much as a single competitive minute together makes this afternoon's contest at Twickenham all the more compelling. England, enjoying the fruits of the agreement on player release between the Rugby Football Union and the Premiership clubs that came into force a little over four months ago, have spent the last 13 days rehearsing their performance. The Pacific Islands team, drawn together from the three leading sides in the South Seas, arrived in London from various points of the compass on Monday. England should win comfortably, but "should" and "will" are not one and the same thing.
"A game against the Islanders means there's a lot less video to watch," the manager said. "It's very different from the forthcoming matches against Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, on whom we have masses of recent footage. There's bound to be a certain amount of guesswork involved here, because we can only go on what we know of the individual players, rather than how they play together." In other words, England are in "suck-it-and-see" territory.
For all the uncertainty of the situation, Johnson was in bullish enough mood, despite his failure to shift the focus of this match away from himself and towards his playing party. The great second-row forward from Leicester was certainly not wrong-footed by the comments of his long-time England coach Sir Clive Woodward, who had publicly questioned the RFU's decision to appoint a manager wholly lacking in relevant experience. "That's Clive," he responded, letting the subject slide away outside off-stump. "He's never been backwards in coming forwards when it comes to having his say."
Encouragingly for those who crave a return to the glory days of 2003, when Johnson's brilliant leadership was at the heart of England's glorious treble – a Six Nations Grand Slam, an unbeaten trip to the Antipodes and a World Cup triumph – the returning hero reported that the old fires had been rekindled. "I'd spent a long time playing rugby and it was nice to have a break from the game," he said. "But there is something very powerful about the sport and the hold it has on me. I still feel the buzz, the emotion. It tells me I'm alive."
To a man, the England players are positive about Johnson's managerial approach. They talk of his empathy and his appreciation of their needs and concerns, as well as his sense of strategy and structure.
But they have yet to play a game under him and therefore have no idea how he will react to defeat. Neither does Johnson, for that matter. "I don't know how I'll react to anything," he said. "I'll just be myself. Anything else would be an act, and people can see through an act."
If things go to plan, the new half-back pairing of Danny Care and Danny Cipriani will run the Islanders off their feet – both men are blessed with blistering pace – and give the newcomers out wide, Delon Armitage and Ugo Monye, ample opportunity to familiarise themselves with the demands of Test rugby from a position on the front foot.
If things do not go to plan and the England forwards struggle to find fresh methods of subduing the visitors under a set of laws that has stripped away the comfort blanket of the traditional mauling-driving game, it could be a very uncomfortable afternoon indeed.
Mosese Rauluni, the Fijian scrum-half and captain of the combined team, believes the latter scenario is a possibility. "I think we can win," he said. "This is England's first game, as well as ours, so they'll be rusty. They've had one of the best set-pieces in the world for a long time and in the past, our teams have really struggled in that area. But we're hoping our front-five forwards will be good enough this time.
"A lot of our guys are playing their rugby up here in Europe and they're learning about scrums and line-outs," Rauluni added. "There are no excuses for us now. We're professionals and we're earning good money. It's up to us to win some ball, unleash our backs and really put it to England."
They have the firepower, for sure: it is not entirely fanciful to suggest that 50 per cent of the Islands team would find a place in this England side, or that the likes of Vilimoni Delasau and Seilala Mapusua are game-changing players in any company. Back in his playing days, Johnson would have known precisely how to beat this lot. But that was then. As the great man himself acknowledges, the past is a foreign country.
*The Ireland coach, Declan Kidney, has told his players to express themselves when the curtain raises on his reign today – but admits that any plans for running rugby are likely to be hampered by the weather. Limerick's Thomond Park will play host to the dawn of a new era in Irish rugby when Canada visit for the first match of a three-game autumn programme.Reuse content