It was the inevitable question – so inevitable that Martin Johnson had his answer off pat. "How will we deal with the haka? Richard Cockerill is parachuting into Twickenham specially for the occasion," grinned England's captain, recalling the 1997 Test with New Zealand at Old Trafford, when his Leicester clubmate disrupted the All Blacks' traditional war dance by getting up close and very personal with the combustible South Island hooker, Norm Hewitt. If only it were true.
Cockerill is strictly past tense, more's the pity: drummed out of the England side for spilling a whole can of beans in his ghosted autobiography, he now plays his rugby in France and is unlikely to experience the full force of the haka ever again, much less interrupt it. Johnson, meanwhile, is living life in the present, and is acutely aware of the dangers posed by a young, inexperienced and unfamiliar band of All Black tourists this weekend.
Johnson knows plenty about All Black youngsters, for the simple reason that he was one himself, having played in King Country in his late teens and impressed his hosts, the great Colin Meads included, to such a degree that he made the New Zealand Under-21 team before hoofing it home to the English shires. He may be up against two second-row rookies this weekend – both Ali Williams, a 21-year-old beanpole from Auckland, and Keith Robinson, a rough-house customer from Waikato, will be winning their first caps – but he is not anticipating a pain-free afternoon.
"So, they're debutants," he said. "Think back to last season, when Ben Kay played his first big international for England. He was outstanding. If someone like Tom Palmer [the highly-rated Leeds lock] had been picked for this game, I would expect him to perform every bit as well. The days of guys playing 10 Tests before making an impact are long gone. We may not know as much about these particular All Blacks as we know about some others, but they have played National Provincial Championship and Super 12 rugby, and those are world-class tournaments. They'll be good."
Few players in living memory can match Johnson's achievements: a double Lions captain, he has led his country to victories over every major international side bar one.
The All Blacks are the exception. Having beaten them twice in six months as a foot soldier in 1993, he has not repeated the feat since. The World Cup semi-final defeat in Cape Town in 1995 bordered on the humiliating, the loss at Old Trafford two years later was compounded by the fact that he was subsequently suspended for punching, and the Jonah Lomu-inspired reverse at Twickenham three years ago was painful in the extreme, not least because England felt they had the winning of that game.
"That match was one of the most intense of my career," Johnson said yesterday. "The most disappointing aspect was our failure, in the heat of battle, to do the things we'd said we would do. I think we are better now at executing game plans – we've proved that against some of the best sides in the world – but rugby is not robotic, especially when you get an England-New Zealand fixture, which happens so rarely. The All Blacks have a mystique about them, so you expect the unexpected even more than usual. This is the kind of occasion that makes sport exciting."
Wisely, Johnson refused to be drawn on the comments of his Leicester colleague, the former All Black flanker Josh Kronfeld, who pontificated at some length on England's habit of talking a good game. Neither was he eager to respond to Andrew Mehrtens' suggestion that few rugby teams are in England's class when it comes to triumphalist gloating. "If those are their perceptions, I can't do much about it," he shrugged.
But the loaded words and phrases are beginning to fly between Surrey and Richmond, the respective team bases. Asked to identify the historical figure he would most like to have met, the aggressive Robinson plumped for Gandhi, "because I really admire his pacifism". Rather like his more celebrated opposite number on the subject of Cockerill, he was joking.
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