Martin Johnson has said it before, and he will say it again before the frenzied hypertension of the week subsides: when it comes to naked, in-your-face aggression, nobody does it better than the Springboks. It is the reason Johnson respects them, to the point of loving them. England's captain, filled as he is with the warrior spirit, recognises something of the same in the likes of Corne Krige and Bakkies Botha. Whatever happens at the Subiaco Oval this weekend, Johnson will not bleat about the big, tough boys in green and gold.
Yesterday, the Leicester lock was as open and honest as ever in his appraisal of the struggle ahead. Yes, he considered the Boks to be the most consistently physical side in world rugby; yes, the contest at the scrum would be ferocious; yes, it might come down to a bit of humpty. "It will be a matter of winning the collisions, of doing it to them before they do it to us," he said. "Of course there is more anxiety, more nervousness, more pressure now. It is one of those 'whatever it takes' matches."
There is nothing prissy about Johnson, who accepts the Adam in himself and sees no reason to resent the presence of it in others. If five per cent of what Johnson does on a rugby pitch is unacceptable to the sporting puritans among us, the other 95 per cent is exactly what any team might crave from its principal forward. And without the minor part of that equation, the major part would not exist.
If you include the three Lions Tests in the republic in 1997 - won two, lost the last - Johnson has mixed it with the Boks on 11 occasions. In England colours, he found himself on the wrong end of a thumping at Twickenham in 1995, finished a bad second in the World Cup quarter-final in '99 and let slip a tight one in Pretoria seven months later. Against that, he played a significant hand in the victory over Gary Teichmann's record-chasing tourists in 1998 and has captained his countrymen to four consecutive wins, the first in Bloemfontein three and a half years ago. It is not a perfect return, but it is hardly the worst.
"In recent seasons, we've played the majority of the fixtures at home," he said. "That's one reason for our success. But I think we've been the slightly stronger side, too. All the matches have been as demanding as you'd expect, because along with the All Blacks, the Boks are one of the traditional superpowers of the world game. They have only lost one World Cup match, which pretty much tells you all you need to know. And they realise, as we do, that it will be very difficult to win this tournament without winning on Saturday."
Inevitably, Johnson was questioned about the events at Twickenham last November, when an inexperienced South African side lost their collective rag in pyrotechnical fashion and lost by a record score. Equally inevitably, he shrugged his shoulders in a "that's life" kind of fashion. "They'd been beaten by Scotland the week before, they were under pressure and they'd backed themselves into a corner," he said. "It's not in our hands, but we don't expect a repeat performance. Anyway, teams aren't intimidated by foul play, but by good, fast, aggressive rugby. The Boks are well capable of producing that."
Johnson accepted that the injuries to half a dozen colleagues, including three scrum-halves, had given him plenty to think about, but even here he was in philosophical mood. "It's a part of World Cup rugby, isn't it? Look at David Giffin [the Wallaby lock] and Tana Umaga [the All Black centre]. Everywhere you look, leading teams have their problems. You deal with it, simple as that."
While Johnson was less than enthusiastic about revisiting the trauma of the last World Cup meeting between the two, when England were drop-goaled out of the competition by Jannie de Beer and his "Boot of God", his vice-captain, Jonny Wilkinson, was perfectly happy to chew the fat. "I'll definitely use the '99 match as a motivational tool," the outside-half said. "I saw it then as a lesson that needed to be learned, and I see it now as a good example of rugby played at the highest level of pressure."
And as a media scrum some 100-strong pressed in on him, the ultra-serious Wilkinson even cracked something resembling a joke. Asked about David Beckham's much-publicised penalty miss in Istanbul last weekend, he replied: "Fair play to the guy, the self-control and discipline he showed in the face of intimidation was something else. It's not just on the pitch with him, either; I don't know where he finds his spare minutes. I'm just glad I have my privacy."
If Wilkinson kicks England to victory this weekend, he may have to disguise himself as Beckham to get some peace.Reuse content