'We need to make a step up,' Johnson warns England

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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson is not the kind of captain to "shop" his own colleagues in public. Asked for his response to South African charges that the England players were at each other's throats during last weekend's tough contest with the Springboks in Perth, the Leicester lock flatly denied that his team reacted to a highly pressurised situation by trading insults among themselves.

"We weren't swearing at each other," he explained, with something resembling a straight face. "We were just... swearing."

There was a serious side to yesterday's debate, though. Johnson himself accepted that mistakes had been made against the Boks and that a similar error count against the Samoans on Sunday would cost England dear.

"This is a dangerous team we're talking about here," he said. "They are the top team in the pool at the moment, they have very little to lose, and they will take the field with 15 blokes who can all play with the ball. If we let the game get loose, they'll do more with their possession than the South Africans did last week. History tells us that Samoa always have a big World Cup performance in them. We need to make a step up."

On the face of it, this will be easier said than done. Will Greenwood and Steve Thompson, two of the most influential players in the party, will be missing on Sunday, as will Richard Hill, who is still struggling to shake off a minor hamstring problem. Joe Worsley will start an international fixture on the blind-side flank for only the second time since the 1999 World Cup. Stuart Abbott, the least experienced member of the squad, has only two caps in the bank; Iain Balshaw, one of the more elusive figures in the English game, is anything but match-hard.

But Johnson was having none of it. "I would go into any Test match with these people around me and feel good about our chances," he said, firmly. "I just don't have a problem with it. Worsley was around in the last tournament and has played a good deal at this level; Abbott has been in exceptional form for months; Balshaw is a Test Lion. The days when I was scared of taking the field without particular individuals in particular positions are well and truly gone."

Quite justifiably, Johnson was satisfied with his own performance against the Boks; along with his clubmates, Neil Back and Ben Kay, he was the pick of the red rose forwards. Equally reasonably, he felt the team as a whole missed a beat or three.

"It was a pressure occasion - you could sense real nervousness amongst the players - and it wasn't realistic to expect to get through the match without being asked some tough questions," he said. "But certain aspects of our game needed addressing in light of what happened in the match, and we've been working on those things this week.

"In particular, we need to protect our possession. If we turn over ball against Samoa, they'll hurt us with their pace and support play."

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