James Lawton: French sprinkle water on the fire as Johnson stirs

Thursday 13 November 2003 01:00

There is no point in arguing about it and here at least England, gauche, plodding old England, have got something perfectly right in this World Cup. The French are the stars - thus far. They have cornered the market in cool, on and off the field.

But it doesn't always have to be like this. There are a few reasons for saying this, some psychological, some as basic as an earth movement - and there is also the expression on Martin Johnson's face. It is not tranquil. It is not benign. Still less is it resigned. It speaks of a certain stirring.

First, however, the French, and the way they are scouring their souls for any dangerous hint of hubris at their elevation as the heart-throbs of the tournament. Yesterday they opened their doors and, some may just have believed, their hearts in a stylish quayside restaurant just a long touch-kick away from the Opera House.

Even their explosively combative young No 8, Imanol Harinordoquy, had quietened down and agreed to be nice to the English - until Sunday night's semi-final at the Telstra Stadium. Meanwhile, the coach, Bernard Laporte, lectured anyone who cared to listen on the absurdity of downgrading the English from their pre-tournament status as favourites.

It was almost Fawltyesque, this uniform determination not to disparage the English. While the Australia coach, Eddie Jones, needled the All Blacks, there were times when Laporte seemed to be suing for peace.

Said the schoolmasterly coach: "I don't think the English have fallen away - quite the opposite. They have come through hard games against Samoa and Wales. I've never said I hated the English - no, no, I respect them, and especially the group right now.

"Clive Woodward has turned them into the best in the world, and Martin Johnson is a great leader, and when England claim they will win it is not arrogance. It is commitment, self-belief."

Jonny Wilkinson in crisis? Mon Dieu, how absurd. "If Jonny doesn't want to go any further with England, he can join France. He's a great player and he could adapt very quickly to the French style."

A little dangerous this, maybe, a little ingenuous. What would he do with the player who has caught everybody's imagination, the young wizard from Toulouse, "Freddy" Michalak? But Laporte was relentless.

"I don't think the English camp is feeling that much pressure. It is still in a battling mood. Even if standards have dropped a little recently, they are still very strong - and they can pull themselves up very easily. Wilkinson may feel a little pressure, but he can deal with that because he has had four years at the top. Freddy has just arrived."

Laporte's one concession is that if England have had a problem - apart from the collapse of cohesion for long stretches of the Samoan and Welsh matches, the fact that Wilkinson is looking so down he might be capable of bringing fresh gloom to a Welsh funeral, and the claim of the Wales coach, Steve Hansen, that the key to embarrassing them is to make the big old forwards do a bit of serious running - it is that a World Cup inevitably levels up the field.

Teams like Samoa and Wales - and France - are suddenly on an operational par with no-expenses-spared England. At last, a whiff of contention, but it was swept away on a tide of laughter when the France manager, Jo Masso, said that the sight of a former England forward, and police inspector, sitting on the floor in shorts made him think he was at Woodstock.

Woodstock? Across the bay in England's headquarters in Manly the England captain Johnson was plainly in a mood to go further back than those old days of rock and funny cigarettes. Perhaps even as far as Agincourt and Crecy.

Yes, he snapped, it may be that there has been a little too much soul-searching and a few too many video sessions. When he was asked the question he said: "Good point, I'll pass it on." And he added: "It's a rectangular bit of grass, we have 15 players, they have 15 players, you kick off and play ... The game is about passion and emotion and we have to raise the stakes. It's a World Cup semi-final, for God's sake.

"It's time to stop the soul-searching and get on with it. We haven't played as well as we want to do, but we have to keep it in some perspective. We did beat Samoa and Wales. When I was growing up we hadn't beaten Wales in Cardiff for 20-odd years. This year we've beaten them three times.

"It's always been a big game against France - and they are always an exciting team. I've grown up watching them play, and you only have to look at their World Cup record. In the last World Cup they didn't set their pool alight but they got to the semi-final and produced the performance of the tournament in defeating the All Blacks.

"For us the important thing is just to go out and win the game - concentrate on playing well. I don't think we'll be able to pull off a 'we didn't play well but we still managed to win' game. If we play badly, we're on the plane. If you play badly people question your age. Age is not a factor."

Nerve is. So is self-belief. The French have displayed both qualities with beautiful timing and élan. But still they do not want to stir up the English. Johnson's face, and his demeanour, explained why.

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