Wales resigned to losing Johnson to Wallabies coaching team

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The Independent Online

Wales could have done without losing Ceri Sweeney, their midfield replacement for the Six Nations meeting with England at Twickenham tomorrow, to a groin injury, not least because three high-calibre operators - Gavin Henson, Tom Shanklin and Sonny Parker - are already out of the picture due to suspension, injury and premature retirement. Furthermore, the latest man in the frame, the Cardiff Blues outside-half Nicky Robinson, is woefully short of match practice.

The Grand Slam champions will, though, be more concerned at the prospect of losing one of the most influential members of their coaching staff, Scott Johnson. Yesterday's news from Australia, which confirmed the recently departed Bath coach John Connolly as the Wallabies' new head man, is likely to result in Johnson returning home in April.

A well-regarded skills specialist and a brilliant motivator, Johnson is one of Connolly's two principal targets, along with his long-time ally, the renowned forwards coach Michael Foley, whom he left atthe Recreation Ground in November.

Senior figures in the Welsh Rugby Union have resigned themselves to relinquishing Johnson, much as Bath have accepted the impending loss of Foley. Bob Calleja, the West Country club's chief executive, said yesterday that while the Australian Rugby Union had not signalled any formal interest in securing the services of the World Cup-winning hooker, he expected an approach sooner rather than later. The only sticking point will surround compensation, for Foley has the best part of 18 months left on his contract.

The Welsh may find Johnson working against them come next year's World Cup, but they were at least getting the best out of him yesterday. While England, heavy favourites to overturn last season's narrow defeat in Cardiff, took a day away from the big-match build-up - the players left the team base in Surrey to spend a few hours of "down time" with family and friends - Johnson was in full flow, tacitly accusing the red rose army of failing to take Wales as seriously as they might.

"We will play the way we play," he said. "We are under no illusions about that, and I don't want them to be, either. Brazil don't change their style of football, do they? England will come at us, which is fine, and we will come at them in a different way. We like to move the ball, that's what we do. We won three matches away from home last season and showed how the game can be played. If teams want to underrate us, then great. We will go out and show them it wasn't a fluke."

Italy, who open the Six Nations with a game against Ireland in Dublin tomorrow lunchtime, have left their most accomplished prop forwards, Andrea Lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni, on the bench. Pierre Berbizier, who both captained and coached France with great distinction, has also remodelled the back division for his first championship match in charge of the Azzurri, moving the experienced Cristian Stoica from centre to full-back and handing a first start to the 24-year-old Calvisano winger Pablo Canavosio.

Last season's wooden spoonists have not enjoyed much luck. Although they pieced together some decent performances in the autumn, they have lost Ezio Galon, their first-choice full-back, and the centres Andrea Masi and Denis Dallan. Berbizier's decision to shift Stoica means that the younger of the ever-enthusiastic Bergamasco brothers, Mirco, has been press-ganged into doing a turn in midfield.

Happily, the back row looks strong. Mauro Bergamasco and Sergio Parisse, both of whom play top-flight club rugby with Stade Français, will be partnered by another Six Nations debutant, the New Zealand-born Josh Sole.