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Six Nations: Johnson set to have last laugh

By Michael Sadlier

It’s hardly been a regal progress to reach this point but, still, |England now find themselves 80 minutes away from bagging the full set of a Grand Slam, Championship and, of course, Triple Crown.

What’s all the more surprising is that this is the first time they have been in such a position of having all to play for going into the last game of the Six Nations since, well, 2003 which of course was the prelude to Martin Johnson lifting the Webb Ellis trophy that |autumn in Sydney.

Since then and things have been tricky. Leaving aside the fact they reached the last World Cup final, results have been patchy to poor and there have been rumblings aplenty off the field. Coaches have come and gone as well, with Sir Clive Woodward, Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton having had stints to try and steady the helm with Rob Andrew briefly holding the fort before they finally turned to the glowering presence of Johnson in a seemingly desperate bid to turn things around in summer 2008.

It’s not been an easy ride for the former England playing icon with his attempt to tear up the seating at Croke Park back in 2009 being a particularly prominent memory of his early days in charge.

Indeed, Johnson has taken his own share of flak over selections (remember Danny Cipriani?) and performances but, as in his playing career and of course notably when he steadfastly refused to observe protocol and move England to their correct position to meet Irish president Mary McAleese, he seems to have faced down the doubters and has brought England to the brink of something tangible to take to New Zealand in the autumn.

The side may have stuttered against Scotland on Sunday, but Johnson seems to have struck a good balance with his selection most notably in the way Toby Flood and Jonny Wilkinson dovetail at out half with Flood clearly the man in possession.

They also have pace to burn in their back three with Mark Cueto, Ben Foden and the swallow-diving Chris Ashton offering plenty at least when going forward.

Yet Johnson’s preoccupation with a physically imposing midfield means that the combination of Shontayne Hape and the massive Matt Banahan, who has stepped in for the injured warhorse Mike Tindall, only increases their power in this area.

Up front and you would expect Johnson to be playing his strongest hand and there is little argument with a pack including Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole in a formidable front row, and then the dynamism of Tom Palmer, James Haskell and Nick Easter all capable of having a significant say in the game’s direction.

But, then again, they have brought powerful looking sides to Dublin before and have spectacularly faltered against a side they have only beaten once since 2003. It’s possible they’ll fall again, yet it’s more probable that they won’t.

Belfast Telegraph

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