Public apology from Johnson before biggest game of his reign

Manager says sorry over ball tampering as England prepare for this morning's win-or-bust encounter with fired-up Scots

The eve of a win-or-bust World Cup game is not the ideal moment for an outpouring of contrition, especially when the man saying sorry is Martin Johnson, the very embodiment of English rugby's "no backward step" spirit.

Unfortunately for the manager, there were no choices available to him yesterday. While the Scots were building nicely towards this morning's decisive pool game at Eden Park – how they love and cherish their underdog status on these occasions – Johnson found himself squirming on the end of a whole series of impertinent questions about the latest red-rose brush with the disciplinary classes.

Less than 24 hours after he, in private consultation with various members of the Rugby Football Union's top brass, banned the kicking coach Dave Alred and the fitness specialist Paul Stridgeon from taking an active part in today's game – the two men are carrying the can for England's sharp practice against Romania last weekend – Johnson made his apologies in public. "What happened was wrong and we regret it," he said. "I don't suspend people lightly and this is a blow for the guys concerned, but you have to be prepared for what comes at you in a World Cup. They acted in the heat of a Test and they've paid for it."

At no point during this conversation did Johnson seek to deny that Jonny Wilkinson, the man who dropped the goal that won the World Cup for England eight years ago, had been implicated in the "ball manipulation" events of seven days ago. It was Wilkinson who twice used the wrong ball – that is to say, a ball different from the one with which a try had been scored – for his conversion attempt, in contravention of rugby law. Alred, his long-time mentor, was on the touchline while all this was going on, while Stridgeon was scurrying round trying to locate the specific numbered ball of the outside-half's choice. These tactics were abandoned at half-time when the referee, Romain Poite of France, made his objections.

"We should have asked the referee before changing the ball but we didn't," Johnson confessed. "The referee told us to stop, which we did." Then, on being asked about Wilkinson's involvement, he added, rather cryptically: "What other people's take on this might be, I'm not sure. You can speculate all you want about it. There are lots of might-have-beens in World Cups."

It is now clear that had Johnson and his RFU employers not taken direct action against someone in their camp, they would have faced a formal disciplinary charge from World Cup officials and would have been forced to attend a hearing at some point before today's game – something that would have badly disrupted their preparation. As it is, Wilkinson will not be able to call on Alred's support during this most testing of pool deciders. "Jonny will be OK," Johnson said. "Match days are less about him and Dave than training days. They do most of their preparation together in the week leading into a game and they do it very well. None of this is ideal, but Jonny will be fine."

Scotland have had plenty of fun at England's expense in recent seasons, beating them on three occasions between 2000 and 2008 and holding them to a draw at Murrayfield last year. "This still has the feel of an England-Scotland game," Johnson said, "but it's the first time the two countries have ever met outside of Britain and there is definitely something different about it. There is an edge too, but that's the World Cup element. This is knock-out rugby now. We have to win."

Would the manager go out of his way to calm English emotions in the dressing room before a game of such magnitude? After all, most observers see the Scots as the ones most likely to benefit from a fiery contest. Johnson was not so sure. "I prefer to leave it to the players as individuals, because everyone prepares in their own way," he said. "It's an emotional game, isn't it? Some guys like to play colder than others but when I was involved, I liked the emotion of it. Back in the 1990s, when I was trying to make it into the England team, there was genuine hatred between our players and the Scots. I don't think that's the case now: times have changed, the people have changed. But I know the Scots will bring their passion to this match, as I know we will bring ours." Eden Park, the citadel of All Black rugby, will never have seen anything quite like it. The locals may not be treated to the British equivalent of Daniel Carter tripping the light fantastic, but they will certainly see a contest.

Key confrontations where today's match will be won or lost

Ben Youngs v Mike Blair

Youngs is the source of England's attacking threat: he injects pace and brings the outside backs into play. Blair is sufficiently experienced to smother the youngster, but is he in form? The Scots seem undecided as to who is their best No 9.

Matt Stevens v Euan Murray

England probably wish they were playing tomorrow, for the devout Murray would then have been off-limits. Stevens is a capable loose-head operator, but has been struggling with an ankle injury. Murray is the one Scottish prop capable of attacking opponents at the set-piece.

Lewis Moody v John Barclay

An in-form Barclay is England's worst nightmare, because he disrupts their rhythm. Moody is a very different open-side flanker, to the extent that many believe he is not one at all. If he fails to blunt Barclay's edge at the breakdown, there will be strife.

Courtney Lawes v Alastair Kellock

The recently banned England second-row returns at the same time as the recently dropped Scotland captain. Lawes' aggressive tackling worries the Scots, but Kellock, who needs a big game to justify his recall, may be able to attack him at the line-out.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
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

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker