The diamond engagement ring on Zara Phillips's finger may not be the only glittering prize Mike Tindall lays his hands on this year. The acting captain of England, three matches into a five-match Championship that was supposed to have had Lewis Moody as the team's guiding light, grinned in cheerful agreement as his manager Martin Johnson batted away all talk of a Grand Slam. Yet everyone from the hoi polloi to the occupants of Twickenham's poshest seats was abuzz with the thought. Even the France coach, Marc Lièvremont, was at it. "England are the best team in the northern hemisphere at the moment," said Lièvremont. "The path to a Grand Slam is open for them."
When Zara collected her tickets from the Twickenham box office, the Princess Royal's daughter tottered daintily through the crowd on unfeasibly high heels. The mode d'emploi against France of her hubby-to-be was a little more forceful than that, and as for Johnson, he will not be forced from plodding but measured step towards the next kerbstone that is the visit of Scotland on Sunday week. The Scots today meet Ireland who – together with France and Wales – still have a shout of winning the title. The latter pair meet in Paris on the same day England go to Dublin for their concluding match on 19 March.
"Why talk about it?" Johnson said of the Slam. "It's ridiculous even thinking about it. If you want to win something you talk about winning it after the end of the last game. Otherwise you're just setting yourself up for a fall. Just concentrate on what you need to do to win games." This is his mantra; it always was during a playing career of a unique two Lions tours as captain and, of course, 2003 and all that glory of spearheading England's World Cup victory and their most recent Slam, Triple Crown and Championship title.
It was not Johnson's fault that England's years in between have been so lean. Not directly anyway. His retirement from playing and that of several other world-class performers were arguably as important, if not more so, than the coaching quality or otherwise of his predecessors in the leading role, Sir Clive Woodward, Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton.
What no one could explain when he took over from Ashton in contentious circumstances in 2008 was what he would bring to the job. You can expect more than a few stabs at defining it in the coming days, and a theme is likely to be Johnson's good judgement of players and selection.
In the autumn of 2008, with Jonny Wilkinson injured, Johnson picked Danny Cipriani as his first fly-half. Cipriani was coming back from injury and found wanting. Johnson also gave Delon Armitage and Riki Flutey their debuts, and their performances alongside the emerging Toby Flood helped hammer the French here in March 2009; France won their next eight Championship matches until they hit another cul de sac yesterday.
But England cracked apart with injuries in the autumn of 2009 so judgement on "Johnno" had to stay reserved. His choice of Steve Borthwick as captain was vilified yet no obvious alternative name was being shouted until Moody (currently injured) got the nod last summer.
And then there were the laws and their interpretation by referees. Was Johnson a stick-in-the-mud who kept the likes of Ben Foden at bay for too long, or was he a shrewd student of the game who knew that while kicking held sway, Foden would be a neutered force? The interpretations changed last spring, and here Foden was a contender for man of the match.
Still there is critical noise over the selection of Tindall and Shontayne Hape at centre but again the gainsayers struggle for alternatives while Dom Waldouck fights regular injury and the world and his fiancée – not just Johnson and Tindall – believes size matters most in this position.
There is no guarantee which way a potential World Cup meeting of England and France in October – they are seeded to meet in the quarter-finals in New Zealand – might go. We do know England will have the next few days off and take a break from their Surrey headquarters with a visit to Oxford. They may say they're not dreaming of the Slam but the Dreaming Spires will be the backdrop to a rugby public's hopes renewed.Reuse content