Martin Johnson, a fixed point in an ever-changing sporting world, emerged from his long silence on the subject of international rugby yesterday to deliver a few well-chosen words of advice to the England team as they prepared for tomorrow's Six Nations Championship match in Muggers' Alley, otherwise known as Murrayfield, home of the Scots. He did not tell his former colleagues what to do, exactly. He simply told them to avoid doing things suggested by other people. And as usual, he was dead right.
"It's good to see England playing to their strengths and not trying to play a game just for the sake of it," said the World Cup-winning captain, who retired from Test activity after his night of nights in Sydney and has kept a characteristically low public profile ever since.
"The tries scored in the opening two matches against Wales and Italy came from direct rugby. I think people get carried away with the idea that if it looks great, it is great. You play the way you believe will get you the win with the team you've got. Nothing else should really matter."
Extraneous matter never meant diddly-squat to Johnson the player, and his straightforward common-sense approach seldom let him down. He has no truck with the theory that England should broaden their horizons if they have no players capable of seeing further than the ends of their own noses. What he does have truck with is the kind of mean-minded, utterly ruthless application of raw muscle that secured the Webb Ellis Trophy back in 2003. If it was good enough for the great Leicester lock, it should be good enough for pretty much anyone, give or take the odd Daniel Carter.
"I'm still amazed about things said regarding the Italian game," he said. "If England had won by 60 points and Italy hadn't been as competitive as they were, would that have made the performance any better? No. Italy are a physical team who defended very well for the majority of the game and did not give England chances to kick penalties and get away from them.
"It was a good, tough game to watch and England probably got more out of it as a team than by winning by 60 or more. If they'd spun the ball out to the wings, played some fantastic rugby and scored tries easily, as maybe we did in the past, people might say they were great. But that sort of thing doesn't win you the tight Test matches you have to win to be successful in the biggest competitions."
The consensus of opinion is this will be the hardest of England's three tournament fixtures so far. Andy Robinson, the coach, believes Scotland are a "team to be respected", and while he would say that about the Falkland Islands second-string if he happened to be meeting them on World Cup business, he is not faffing around with diplomatic niceties on this occasion.
"Scotland have a natural finisher on the wing in Sean Lamont, and any side with one of those is dangerous," he said. "Chris Paterson is a dangerous counter-attacking runner, they have two scrum-halves close to world class and a beautifully balanced back-row unit in Jason White, Ally Hogg and Simon Taylor. We remember the old loose trio of John Jeffrey, Finlay Calder and Derrick White, and the problems they caused us. They were out-and-out destroyers, though. The people we face tomorrow can destroy with the best of them, but they have some football in them too."
* Leicester have fuelled speculation that Andy Goode their England fly-half could be off to Clermont Auvergne by signing Paul Burke from Munster on a two-year deal.Reuse content