Johnson can tilt battle of basics England's way

Deluge increases risk for Woodward's three-winger side as Scots aim to exploit line-out advantage
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The Independent Online

Two years ago at Murrayfield, England's idea of pragmatic rugby was to ignore conditions bordering on the apocalyptic and follow a game plan of such intricacy that the French would have struggled to deliver it on a warm afternoon in Biarritz. They are unlikely to be quite so brainless in this afternoon's Calcutta Cup match at the same stadium, if only because Martin Johnson, the best lock forward in the world and a proven leader of men, can out-trog any troglodyte you care to name if the weather turns nasty.

Johnson was not involved when the Scots plucked out the red roses, roots and all, in the final game of the 2000 tournament – the second of three consecutive Grand Slam failures that have left Clive Woodward, the England manager, wondering what profoundly unpleasant surprise might be awaiting him as this season's Six Nations unfolds. The fact that Woodward was his usual upbeat self yesterday, even though the wind and rain were sweeping in off the Pentland Hills and Princes Street was a veritable sea of inverted umbrellas, underlined the degree of security he gets from having his captain around.

Woodward might just as easily have been in a 24-carat strop about conspiratorial weather patterns, for the deluge has maximised the risk surrounding his decision to do away with Mike Catt and Danny Grewcock at inside centre and second row respectively. By omitting Catt, the manager has cut England's tactical kicking options by 50 per cent and loaded the strategy towards Will Greenwood's sleight of hand in midfield – logical in the dry, questionable in the wet. Similarly, Grewcock's mongrel qualities tend to flourish when a side is forced to abandon the frills and fripperies and play swamp-rugby instead. Ben Kay, his replacement, can match Grewcock in most areas, but not in the "grunt" department.

Under the circumstances, then, Johnson will be central to England's fortunes and, by extension, their chances of retaining the Six Nations title. (There are only half a dozen instances of a side winning the championship outright after losing their opening match, and England have managed it only once, in 1996). Certainly, the holders are so fearful of Scotland's line-out – a state-of-the-art operation in which Scott Murray and Jason White pinch opposition possession for a pastime – they are likely to spend most of the afternoon throwing to Johnson at the front.

The Scots have potential advantages elsewhere, not least in the back three. "They're going into the game with three full-backs," Woodward said yesterday, "while we're going in with three wings." The England manager is unshakeable in his conviction that attacking rugby in the modern era is best played with maximum width and depth, and there is little doubt that his trio – Austin Healey, Ben Cohen and the uniquely balanced Jason Robinson – would wreak seven shades of havoc on fast going. But the going will not be fast. Today, of all days, the Scottish threesome of Glenn Metcalfe, Brendan Laney and Chris Paterson will fancy their chances of outmanoeuvring their opposite numbers.

"I've tried to pick footballers at full-back and on both wings," Ian McGeechan, the Scotland coach, said. "The roles of the back three interchange these days; in fact, one of the major differences in rugby over the last five or six years has occurred in this area. I am genuinely excited by our unit. There again, England have Healey, so you could say that they have a scrum-half, an outside-half and a wing in one player."

The way Woodward sees it, however, the game will be won well away from Healey. "People are forever talking about the conditions we encountered here two years ago, but the fact of the matter is that we were smashed in the line-out, smashed in the scrum and spent the whole game on the back foot," he pronounced. "When the weather is bad, the basics are more important than ever. If you get your set-pieces wrong, you lose Test matches, and last time we were here our forwards took a belting. I do not envisage that happening again."

So there you have it, from the horse's mouth: this will be a Johnno type of game, with knobs on. A match in which the formidable Bristol prop Julian White, far fitter now than he was in Dublin last October, will be asked to squeeze the pips from his opponent, the Lions loose-head Tom Smith; in which supremely efficient performers like Richard Hill will be expected to exercise some authority amid the hurly-burly. It will not be pretty.

As Woodward said: "I really don't care about the try-count, just so long as we win." The great romantic is becoming positively one-dimensional in his old age, but after the agonies he suffered last time he visited Scotland, it is difficult to blame him.