It would be a duller winter if our English foe didn't turn up

Sat, Feb 9, 2013, 00:00

SIDELINE CUT:Good old England. At least you always know where you are with the English. If it’s February and its cold out, then sooner or later it must be Ireland versus England on the rugby field. Passion is forever high, history is always muddied and feelings are, well, mutual.

Anyone watching the Superbowl on BBC in the wee hours of last Monday morning might have been taken aback by the guest appearance of a swarthy Englishman with ruined ears who was a dead ringer for Martin Johnson. But could this really be “Johnno”, the scowling, belligerent leader of a particularly hateable manifestation of English rugby, jam-packed with beef boys and defined by the metronomic kicking of Jonny Wilkinson? The Johnno who frowned through a thousand press conferences, the Johnno who masterminded the Red Carpet Snub all of a decade ago?

It is only when the State Papers are released in 2028 that we will know just how badly hurt the McAleese family and the Irish political caste were by that diplomatic slight. They say that a good pair of high heeled shoes was destroyed that day. They say that a dartboard bearing the uncompromising features of Captain Johnno was hung in the games room in the Aras shortly after that breach of protocol.

Who knows if it’s true? But whenever you see Martin Johnson now, the mind always flashes back to the big man standing imperiously (and that is the only word) in the middle of Lansdowne Road, impervious to the jeers of the crowd and the pleading from officials to move his team back to the right side – the visitor’s side – of the red carpet. The English, above all nations, should be aware of the nuances of protocol. But Johnson was not for turning. It left the Irish team in a quandary.

As Brian O’Driscoll remarked not long afterwards, they simply didn’t know what to do. “You can’t stand in front of them or you’d be liable to get a box in the back of the head,” he reasoned. So the Irish shuffled down past the English side – evicted tenants in the whole farcical ceremony. Then England won 43-6 to claim the Grand Slam.

Relaxed and charming

None of this was anywhere near Martin Johnson’s mind as he sat in the BBC studio in the Superdome last Sunday night. He was relaxed and charming and clearly thrilled to be there to see his team, the San Francisco 49ers, the team he had supported since Channel 4 began showing gridiron back in 1984.

This was the Martin Johnson of rumour, the man of whom Geordan Murphy had spoken glowingly because of the way the Johnson family virtually adopted him when he first came to Leicester. And Johnson was clearly besotted with American football.

He sat down beside Willie McGinest, the former Patriots linebacker was one of the hardest asses in gridiron during the very years when Johnson was wreaking havoc on rugby fields. And it was clear that McGinest was taken aback by the depth of Johnson’s knowledge and understanding of the game. Johnson looked happy to be in the Big Easy for the weekend and to be getting away from being Martin Johnson. But it was disconcerting watching him because it will always be impossible to separate him from what he has been to us for most of his life: the face of English rugby at its most English.

Nothing has changed. This weekend, England return to Dublin. One of the footnotes of the English team selection saw David Strettle ditched from the bench in order to accommodate Manu Tuilagi. Those of us who were in Croke Park in 2007 when Ireland reaped revenge for Just About Anything The English Ever Did To Us might remember Strettle as the most valiant performer on a sorry afternoon for the men in white. The daylight was murky and England were a mess but Strettle looked electrifying on the wing any time he got the ball.

He was one to watch. But as with Iain Balshaw, it never quite happened for Strettle in the England shirt. Their disastrous World Cup campaign and Johnson’s subsequent resignation as manager have led to a hasty and promising assignment to build a new team. And so Stuart Lancaster has put together an English team of young bruisers infused with the very ruddy self-belief which defined them during Johnson’s days of leading them on the field.

Rumbling on

At some stage tomorrow, Dylan Hartley will come rumbling on from the England replacements bench. The big English hooker literally got stuck into the Irish last year when he decided to bite Stephen Ferris on the finger. (In boxing, the dark art, Mike Tyson’s biting incident remains one of the most notorious incidents in the sport. In rugby, it earns a stern talking-to from the referee and an eight-week ban and then all is forgotten.)

Not content with that, Hartley also decked Rory Best last December. Maybe it’s an Ulster thing. Either way, Hartley wasn’t exactly repentant when asked about it this week and is expecting a hot reception in Lansdowne Road.

Hartley is simply filling in an age-old role when it comes to Ireland-England games. Billy Beaumont, Lawrence Dallaglio (cos he could have played for us), Kyran Bracken (ditto), Gareth Chilcott, Neil Back, Will Carling, Brian Moore . . . the list of sons of the English soil who could get a rise out of the Irish is endless.

This is a bizarre and mixed-up time to be Irish. This is a time when re-arranging a multi-billion debt to Europe is regarded as a triumph for the nation, when it is hard to know what to think about anything.

So when England and Ireland meet to play rugby, you are in good hands. The rules never change. The feelings never change. Beating England at rugby always makes the Irish feel better about life and when that happens, the English take it on the chin.

As John Pullin unforgettably observed in the dark days of 1973, when both the Scots and Welsh declined to play in Dublin because of the Troubles: “We may not be much good but at least we turn up.”

And it would be a duller winter without them.

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