Johnson remains silent after Krige launches verbal assault

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The Independent Online

The Springboks have always felt completely at home in "Little Pretoria", as the capital of Western Australia is known to its large South African community, so Rudolf Straeuli and company did not see any need to launch a charm offensive when they arrived here yesterday.

Far from expressing dismay at the latest diplomatic incident between his team and their English rivals - Corne Krige's description of Martin Johnson as "one of the dirtiest captains in world rugby" was hardly designed to cool the temperature ahead of the World Cup pool game between the two countries in 12 days' time - the Springbok coach flatly refused to back off.

"I suggest you investigate the records of the two players, not just in international rugby but in provincial and club rugby, and see who has been given the most yellow cards, who has been off the field most often," Straeuli said. "Then, you can make your judgement."

Cue Krige himself, transporting a medium-sized mountain of Springbok kit through the arrivals hall. "It was irresponsible of me to say what I said," admitted the flanker, "but the journalist concerned was also irresponsible. I did not expect to see my words in print." Was he sticking by those words, though? "I don't want to say what I believe," he replied, darkly.

To a degree, this Anglo-Bok kerfuffle is nothing more than a storm in a scrumcap; at any other time, the very thought of the piratical Krige accusing anyone, let alone a fellow national captain, of overdoing the biffo would have reduced a statue to hysterics. But at this precise moment, the World Cup can well do without an outbreak of verbals.

Last season's England-South Africa match at Twickenham was a fairly rancid affair, as was the Springbok craving for revenge in the immediate aftermath. Someone, somewhere needs to remove the saucepan from the heat.

Krige, a superb player and an intelligent leader, would be the best man to address this issue in a positive manner, but he was not for turning yesterday. "There is no way we intend to change the way we play," he said, when challenged about the violent excesses of the Bok approach in London 11 months ago. "We want to be physical. Last November, we fielded a young side against a good England side and took a hammering. This Springbok side is different, and will be competitive. There has been almost a year of rugby since then."

Johnson has not shown the slightest sign of reacting to all this - "If I know Martin, he'll play it with a very straight bat," Will Greenwood, the England centre, said - and as the formidable Leicester lock generally prefers to keep his own counsel, the chances of him taking a retaliatory verbal swipe at Krige are infinitesimally small. It was left to his second-row partner at both club and Test level, Ben Kay, to pipe up on behalf of the aggrieved.

"Martin takes a lot of stick one way or another, but in international rugby, you expect people to do whatever they can to put a great player like him off his game," said the High Court judge's son, choosing his words with barrister-like care. "By and large, forwards don't moan too much about the things other forwards might do." At which point, Kay started moaning about his captain. "During the last two times we've played together, he has stood on my face, punched me on the nose and given me stitches," he said. "Basically, I think he's clumsy."

It is already patently obvious that England's principal opponents intend to get at Johnson, the undisputed champion of the world's second-row fraternity since the retirement of Australia's John Eales two years ago, at every opportunity. Just as Krige's "off the record" comments were being placed on the record in Cape Town, one of the Wallaby coaches, John Muggleton, was wondering aloud whether the double Lions captain and other Englishmen of a certain age might struggle to go the distance in the heat of a southern summer.

Poor Kay found himself fielding questions on that theory, too. "Is the England training specially tailored to suit players of different ages?" he was asked, pointedly. His response was suitably dismissive. "I must tell Johnno about this," he said. "He'll piss himself."

Talking of which, the Georgians, who play England at the Subiaco Oval on Sunday, spent a considerable part of their weekend in a downtown pub, drinking beer with local supporters. As befits their status as tournament favourites, Johnson and his colleagues are steering clear of the watering holes and settling for straight water instead.

Yesterday, they performed their post-training recovery session in the ocean. Needless to say, even that was wrong. "You should be careful - there are sharks out there," Kay was told. There are sharks everywhere, it seems.