Martin Johnson believes England will need to overcome an Ireland side bristling with anger as his team attempts to win their first Grand Slam in eight years today.
Johnson, who captained England to their last Grand Slam in 2003, returns to Lansdowne Road this weekend as manager of a team who finally look capable of ending their long wait for a Six Nations crown, but he believes a fiercely proud Ireland will be desperate to wreck England’s Grand Slam dream after a lackluster season comprising two unconvincing wins and two disappointing defeats.
Ireland are also nursing a grievance after last weekend’s 19-13 defeat in Cardiff, when a refereeing blunder allowed Wales to score what turned out to be the decisive try of the match.
Johnson acknowledged that the circumstances of the defeat at the Millennium Stadium could provide potent motivation for Ireland.
“I think you’d be feeling that anger as a team,” Johnson said. “It’s a pretty powerful thing when teams are like that. It makes them very dangerous.”
In all probability, even a defeat on Saturday will probably be enough to give England their first Six Nations crown since 2003. Their hefty points-for advantage means that Wales would need to score a big win over France in Paris to have any chance of snatching the title.
England’s preparations suffered a blow when captain Mike Tindall was ruled out after failing to recover from an ankle injury sustained in last Sunday’s unconvincing 22-16 win over Scotland at Twickenham. The loss of Tindall deprives England of their sole survivor from the 2003 Grand Slam triumph in Dublin, although Johnson has two veterans of that win — Jonny Wilkinson and Steve Thompson — on the bench.
No. 8 Nick Easter will lead England in Tindall’s absence, while the captain’s outside-center spot goes to the powerful Bath No. 13 Matt Banahan.
Johnson insists the relative inexperience of England’s lineup could be a strength as they chase victory at a venue where they have not won since 2003.
“I said to the boys: ‘It’s a great week, let’s enjoy it.’ It’s good for it to be tense,” he said.
Ireland, who have made three changes to the team that started against Wales, including one positional, are hoping to exploit any possible signs of jitters.
“They will have some nerves, like you would for any Grand Slam game, and it’s our job to try to bring those nerves out and compound them,” Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll said.
“If you see a potential frailty, you have to go after that,” added O’Driscoll, who will equal John Smit’s record of 76 Test matches as captain.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney has recalled Jonathan Sexton at flyhalf ahead of veteran Ronan O’Gara and Luke Fitzgerald has been dropped at fullback to be replaced by Keith Earls, whose place on the left wing goes to Andrew Trimble.
FRANCE V WALES
France captain Thierry Dusautoir worked hard to earn the nickname “Dark Destroyer” and today he will be determined to produce a performance worthy of the moniker and help his side bow out of this year’s Six Nations with a victory over Wales.
Victory for the 29-year-old Toulouse flanker — who sprang to prominence when he produced an astonishing 29 tackles in France’s stunning 2007 World Cup quarter-final victory over New Zealand — and the team would earn themselves some form of redemption after their historic Six Nations defeat by Italy last weekend.
“There is a real willingness to finish the tournament in good fashion,” said Dusautoir, who was one of only three players to be praised by coach Marc Lievremont after the Italy disaster.
Dusautoir, who will win his 42nd cap, said that victory would also give the team some form of momentum as they head toward their ultimate target of winning the World Cup for the first time later this year in New Zealand.
“Victory would allow us to finish the tournament on a high note, to turn our attentions more positively to the World Cup and preparing for it,” he said.
Dusautoir, who has won three French titles with Biarritz and Toulouse and one European Cup with the latter side last year, said that he and the rest of the players, or at least the 16 remaining from the 22 that went to Rome, had done a lot of soul searching among themselves during the week.
“We have spoken about it all week,” Dusautoir said. “There were many questions posed to all of the squad after our poor performance, there has been a lot of soul searching and a desire to move on.”
SCOTLAND V ITALY
Cult hero Mirco Bergamasco has dismissed suggestions that Italy will be “hung over” when they go into the wooden spoon battle with Scotland today.
The sides clash at Murrayfield with the success-starved hosts needing to break their Six Nations duck to dodge the tag of basement boys and old stager Bergamasco laughed off the notion that Italy would struggle to have their minds on the job because they would still be wallowing in the glory of last weekend’s historic triumph over deposed champions France.
He was responding to a tongue-in-cheek comment by Scots playmaker Ruaridh Jackson, who reckoned Bergamasco and his teammates could still be suffering from their celebration hangover.
“Of course it was a great weekend in every respect, but we have already moved on,” Bergamasco said. “The French page has been turned and we have opened the Scottish page. Murrayfield is all that is important now and we are preparing accordingly.”
Bergamasco also denied that Scotland would provide a lesser challenge than France had done in Rome.
“We will be up against a team who are going through a very difficult patch,” he said. “They may not have won a match in the campaign, but we know how well they can play. From our point of view, we must convince everyone — especially us — that what happened last Saturday wasn’t a fluke.”
Jackson, meanwhile, stressed that passion and physicality are the two prime qualities of Italy’s lineup.
“They will be on an extreme high when they arrive at Murrayfield and they are definitely developing as a potent team,” Jackson said. “Their attack has improved, but it is in defense that they have made the greatest strides. They will give us an extremely tough challenge and we will have to be at our best for the whole 80 minutes to get the result we want.”
Jackson admitted he was flattered to receive praise from England legend Jonny Wilkinson in the wake of Scotland’s gallant defeat at Twickenham.
“It was nice to hear — for a giant of the game to say that means a lot,” he said. “I would never have had a picture of an Englishman pinned up on my wall when I was a kid, but I certainly watched and admired him when he was in his heyday.”
Looking forward to his third start in a row for Scotland, the Glasgow ace added: “I am growing in confidence — settling in and feeling comfortable in the surroundings and the pace of the game. It has been a frustrating tournament and we need to finish on a high for the country as a whole and for ourselves personally.”