It might make life simpler for everyone if Martin Johnson started Saturday's Six Nations' Championship opener in the Twickenham sin-bin and came on after 10 minutes. The England captain has been a marked man for as long as he can remember – the last time a referee extended the hand of leniency, at Saracens a little over a year ago, Johnson immediately felt the dead weight of the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary machine on his broad shoulders – and another brush with authority in the most recent round of Premiership matches inevitably raised the question of his approach towards the French this weekend.
"I'm not complaining about the yellow card I received against Bristol last week," the Leicester lock said yesterday. "I just thought it was a little harsh, and said so." But this sort of thing is happening far too often, Martin. Do you believe you are being targeted by referees? "No," he replied, with one of his ironic smiles.
Johnson is, of course, the biggest single target for card-waving officials in the English game, and is refereed differently to virtually every other player, largely because of the intense press and television interest in his every move. Not being one of life's natural pacifists, he brings a fair bit of trouble on himself. But as Dean Richards, his manager at Leicester, has argued for some years now, rugby law as it applies to Joe Bloggs of Old Rubberduckians bears little similarity to the version Johnson spends his life transgressing.
All of which will make the beetle-browed Midlander a central character in the drama when the French go in search of a first victory over England in London since 1997. The visitors' own penchant for wild and indisciplined rugby has virtually disappeared since Bernard Laporte assumed the coaching role after the last World Cup, and it is likely that the more trigger-happy characters in the Tricolore pack – Jean-Jacques Crenca, Christian Califano, Fabien Pelous and Serge Betsen – will wind up Johnson, rather than vice-versa. The boot is on the other foot these days.
Certainly, Johnson seemed on edge yesterday. "There is no point denying that this is a big match," he said. "The rugby world has grown smaller over the last few years, with most of the big teams playing a similar style. But the French continue to be different, with their early-ball tactics and their explosive counter-attacking threat from turnovers. They still do things other sides will not, or cannot, attempt. We didn't cope with them in Paris last year, and it is not a nice feeling coming away from an international match knowing you've been outplayed. We're at Twickenham this time and that is always an advantage for us, but it won't win us the game. We'll have to perform somewhere near our best."
A French victory would deny England one of the two prizes they most crave – a first Grand Slam since 1995 – and undermine their drive towards the other: the 2003 World Cup. "We should have won a Slam or two over the last seven years, without a doubt; I've played in teams good enough to have achieved it," Johnson admitted. "I suppose a great team – or a team that wants to be called great – has to win the big things. There again, I wouldn't say to the blokes: 'We've won the Grand Slam, so that makes us great.' I know it's boring, but the only sensible approach is to go from game to game and concentrate on winning each one."
By contrast, the French were bullish in the extreme as they completed their preparations just outside Paris. "To face England at Twickenham is no easy task, but it is not the Himalayas," Laporte pronounced. "In the back line, I think we have more collective skills and greater harmony among the players. England have great individual talents – Wilkinson, Robinson, Cohen – but there is only one Aurelien Rougerie, and he is French.
"England have won 18 successive games in London, but the Tests in November showed they could lose. Australia lost because they missed a last-minute penalty, New Zealand should have scored a winning try when they had a five-metre line-out. They beat South Africa by 50 points, but everyone beat the Boks. England have to lose at Twickenham one day. Why not on Saturday?"
Ireland, meanwhile, have selected the experienced Ulsterman David Humphreys at outside-half for their match with Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday. Humphreys replaces Ronan O'Gara, who is still struggling with the ankle injury he received courtesy of the Neath flanker Brett Sinkinson during the Celtic League final in Cardiff almost a fortnight ago. Paul Burke, of Harlequins, will cover Humphreys from the bench.
IRELAND (v Scotland, Six Nations' Championship, Murrayfield, Sunday 1500): G Dempsey (Terenure); S Horgan (Lansdowne), B O'Driscoll (Blackrock, capt), K Maggs (Bath), D Hickie (St Mary's); D Humphreys (Dungannon), P Stringer (Shannon); R Corrigan (Greystones), S Byrne (Blackrock), J Hayes (Shannon);
G Longwell (Ballymena), M O'Kelly (St Mary's), V Costello (St Mary's), K Gleeson (St Mary's), A Foley (Shannon). Replacements: F Sheahan (Cork Constitution), M Horan (Shannon), L Cullen (Blackrock), A Quinlan (Shannon), G Easterby (Llanelli), P Burke (Harlequins), G Murphy (Leicester).
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