James Lawton: Champion Johnson urges his fighters to punch their weight, or knock-out awaits
England manager was in no mood to discuss once more the dislocations and distractions that have bedevilled him from the first days of the tournament
It was as if Martin Johnson was already making his last stand here in a big hotel ballroom up the hill from the harbour. Dressed in training fatigues, sharp and terse as a champion about to enter the ring, he didn't so much announce a team selection – minus Mike Tindall – as draw a line.
For some time the furrows in his brow might have been created by tank tracks but not yesterday, not when he drew the battle lines that might well shape his professional future.
After the three most tortuous, discomforting weeks of his extraordinary career, the England manager was almost eerily at ease with himself and his embattled circumstances as he left no one in doubt that Tindall's absence from the starting line-up and the forward-heavy replacement unit was euphemism-free.
Yes, the man who first lurched from grace in the Dwarfgate misadventure received a knock against Scotland but he would likely have been fit in time for tomorrow's quarter-final with France.
No, Tindall wasn't on the injured list, he was dropped – which was maybe another reason why the squad vice-captain was seen with his head in his hands at a training session earlier this week – along with Courtney Lawes and James Haskell.
It meant that if Johnson was in no mood to discuss once more the dislocations and distractions that have bedevilled him from the first days of the tournament, it was surely no reach of fancy to believe that in the bare details of his announcement he had made a quite thunderous statement.
Though Jonny Wilkinson no longer sees a kick at goal as one of the ultimate certainties of his ferociously dedicated career, he retained, Johnson made it clear, too many competitive furies to be discarded, even if it should happen Toby Flood, wearing Tindall's jersey, gets first strike at the French posts.
Johnson was plainly most torn by the demotion of Haskell, whose spirit and physicality are likely to draw him into the second-half action. But then the veteran Nick Easter had vital experience to bring. Tom Palmer, who replaces a Lawes suspended after the opening match with Argentina, is another who might offer in hard-nosed reliability a big compensation for a certain lack of spectacle.
Plainly, this was not so much belated score-settling – even though suspicions have grown in recent days that Johnson does have a sense of betrayal over the disciplinary breakdowns involving Tindall and Haskell – as a warrior instinct to stifle any hint of renaissance from the apparently woebegone French and their disconsolate, eccentric coach Marc Lièvremont.
The merest mention of the French and their capacity to translate despair into some passing, running form of ecstasy is enough to tighten Johnson's expression.
When a French questioner suggested that England have little or nothing to beat at Eden Park, Johnson said, while eking the thinnest of smiles: "Not so long ago a lot of people in this room didn't give England any chance when we played France in the World Cup."
That was more recently than in Johnson's own battling experience – the semi-final victory which saw a previously dishevelled England reach the 2007 final.
No doubt Johnson was thinking of the time he faced another large room filled with doubting interrogators before the semi-final against a brilliantly gifted French team four years earlier.
England crushed the team of Fabien Galthié, who afterwards murmured that he expected the power and resilience generated by England to be unbeatable. Johnson was surrounded by the formidable likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Ben Kay on that occasion, and it is easy to recall his confidence before that French game and the subsequent triumph over Australia in the final.
That Martin Johnson didn't have any reason to doubt either his self or the men around him. The one we saw here yesterday was maybe not quite so serene – inevitably so, perhaps, in the absence of an unlimited supply of happy pills – but certainly there was some of that old and vital swagger.
He brusquely dismissed a question about a certain shortfall in ticket sales for the duel with France – the New Zealand public could pay their money and take their choice – but the chances were that they would be missing a fascinating encounter between a team of undoubted strength, if not all-consuming form, and a French team for whom the journey between heaven and hell can be the shortest of Metro rides.
"With the French," said Johnson, "it doesn't matter what happened the last match or last year – you can write them off before a match, even during it, and they can make nonsense of it. Just think of what they did against New Zealand in two recent World Cups.
"In both games they were down and beaten but everybody knows what happened. The French can come alive at any time. No one should forget that."
There is a perceptible lift in Johnson when he talks of tomorrow's possibilities – the sense of a man who has wearied of so much that has recently interfered with the imperatives of moving forward which have always shaped his rugby thinking, from his earlier days in the culture of New Zealand rugby.
The more he talked yesterday, the more credence you could give to the analogy of a fighter, the sense of his liberation from long and frustrating days with the beckoning of the hard and potentially uncomplicated action.
He didn't make claims for a perfect selection because there is never such a thing – just a stab in the direction of the law of probabilities. The choice of Haskell or Easter exercised him mostly deeply, but no, he didn't agonise. He put a few things in the balance and made a "tough call".
The pairing of Wilkinson and Flood with Manu Tuilagi powering his way on their outside did not amount to a gamble. It simply created new possibilities with Wilkinson's kicking game and the passing of Flood. "It's about getting the most out of your resources and sometimes you have to decide what offers you most," said Johnson.
"Of course, you can never be certain. Who would have thought Manu would have made such a quick impact at the international level? Manu and Mike [Tindall] worked well together. Toby and Manu have the same opportunity."
For Johnson, though, there will be one great necessity as the southern night falls over the great cathedral of All Black rugby.
It is to be sceptical of stories of the mutinous, the demoralised and the anarchic French. "I don't buy stories about the splits in their camp," he says. "You could talk to me all night about them and I would still tell you that on Saturday they will come to play. They are always dangerous – and never more so when they have nothing to lose."
There was something of that last dimension in Johnson yesterday. He had made his choices and, it was hard not to believe, his stand. If he has had quite relentless difficulties, now he had a simple proposition to make to his troublesome crew.
Now the debate could be compressed into the rough eloquence of the sweet one-two combination of a defiant champion. His players could finally punch their weight – or go home. And Martin Johnson, more than of any of us, could have a little peace.
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