Martin Johnson relishing South Africa clash

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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson was barely able to contain his excitment on the eve of England's showdown with South Africa as he told his men: "This is what you play for."

Johnson's mantra since the day he took charge of England was that rugby, despite all the analysis, planning and science, must remain a players' game. Coaches and managers have to know when to back out.

But Johnson has found that hard this week and it is no surprise. Tomorrow's clash at Twickenham is exactly the kind of confrontation in which he revelled as a player and captain.

South Africa, fired up following last week's shock 21-17 defeat to Scotland, will pose England a physical challenge like no other team on the planet.

"I have tried not to talk too much this week because I get too excited. This is what you play for - there will be 80,000 at Twickenham and we are up against a good South Africa team," said Johnson.

"It is going to be a big, big game. It is a cracking game to be involved in whenever you play South Africa. It will be very physical, intense and a great Test match.

"Everyone is looking forward to a full-blooded Test match at Twickenham.

"I don't do this job for the money. To be involved with the England rugby team, you don't get any better than that.

"You want those days we have had at Twickenham in the last couple of weeks. The players recognise that. It is a hell of a thing to be involved with."

While the Springboks are under growing pressure following the Scotland defeat, England head into the game on the back of a record 35-18 victory over Australia and a tough 26-13 win against Samoa.

When Johnson was a player he could sense the mood in the camp. By his own admission that is harder now he is no longer "in the group".

But returning captain Lewis Moody has his finger on the pulse and he said: "There is a similar feel to the week of the Australia game. There is the angst in the air, a nervous energy that I like to see in the squad.

"You know then that people are prepared and ready for the game."

England could move second in the world if they beat South Africa tomorrow, a lofty position they have not occupied since 2004.

Johnson puts no stock in the world rankings and he has been anxious to dismiss the notion that England are world-beaters just because they have beaten Australia home and away.

But heading into tomorrow's game, he is confident of two things.

The first is that England will not back down from the physical "nose-to-nose" challenge posed by the South Africans.

And the second is that he is in charge of a promising team who can take a major step in their development by sealing England's first victory over the Springboks in seven attempts.

"We are desperate to play as well as we can. We want the England team to be a successful team that people can be proud of and we are on the right track," said Johnson.

"We have an exciting team and I am not playing that down. This team is on an upwards curve and everything goes into tomorrow.

"But we are nowhere near where we can be. The whole thing has only come together this calendar year. We are still building. We have done nothing yet."

England have not beaten South Africa since 2006 and two years ago, in Johnson's first encounter with the Springboks as a coach, they were thrashed 42-6 in a record home defeat.

"It wasn't a fun day but that is sometimes what you go through," said Johnson.

The identity of the current England team began to take shape towards the back end of the Six Nations, when Toby Flood replaced Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half and Ben Foden and Chris Ashton were introduced to the team.

Ben Youngs, Shontayne Hape, Courtney Lawes and Tom Palmer established themselves in the team on the summer tour of Australia and this autumn Johnson has only used 25 players.

After making four changes for the win against Samoa, Johnson has reverted to his strongest side to face South Africa - the same starting XV that beat Australia a fortnight ago.

"South Africa have been successful because they have been pretty settled and a very good team and we haven't, for a while," said Johnson.

"We have got to turn that first thing around and the results will follow. Teams have to take those steps, like beating Australia.

"We can talk about it but the players have to go and do it and really believe it."