Johnson: We must win battle of brains
October 7, 2011
Johnson admits mind games will come into play on Saturday © Getty Images
England boss Martin Johnson has warned his charges that they must be mentally primed as well as physically ready for their World Cup quarter-final with France on Saturday.
Johnson knows from experience France can veer from being a rabble to world-beaters in the space of a week, sometimes in the space of the same match. Marc Lievremont's squad have appeared to be divided and in a state of disarray since last weekend's defeat to Tonga - but that is not necessarily to England's benefit.
Johnson recalls clearly how France reacted to no-win situations at both the 1999 and 2007 World Cups with stunning victories over New Zealand. One of the biggest criticisms of England's game in recent years has been their inability to adapt on the field to the challenges in front of them. In a bid to hammer home that message, Johnson returned to one of his favourite quotes that was delivered to his squad by injured Colonel Harry Parker on the eve of their autumn victory over Australia.
"The best plan doesn't survive first contact with the enemy," Johnson said. "We know France can underperform but we also know they can produce games that are almost unstoppable, as we have seen at World Cups.
"You absolutely expect anything and for it to be of the highest standard. Anything can happen and we have to deal with it mentally. If you don't deal with it mentally you can't deal with it physically.
"What if they get an interception and we are 10-0 down after 10 minutes? We fight back. That means getting three, six, nine points or you hopefully slam a try in, two. What if you get a big score and you are ahead? That can also be difficult to handle, it can freeze a team. You need that adaptability and that thought on the field.
"We need to manage the game. We need to think on our feet all the way through the game, roll with all the variables and find a way to win."
While England may not have traditionally been the most adaptable of sides, they have shown their mettle by coming from behind to beat both Argentina and Scotland so far at this World Cup.
"It is certainly a confidence-builder for the squad to know that when you are behind you can close games out. The most important thing for a team is to win no matter what the game has been like," said captain Lewis Moody. "When you have the Chris Ashtons, the Jonny Wilkinsons, the Toby Floods, the Ben Youngs, the forward pack - you have the arsenal there to take that victory."
England beat France at the semi-final stage in both 2003 and 2007, with Wilkinson's boot a key factor in both matches, but it was Flood who was at the helm for this year's Six Nations win. Johnson has shifted his selection policy by naming them both to start tomorrow, with Wilkinson at fly-half and Flood at inside centre.
England had settled on a policy of selecting a powerful ball-carrier and solid defender at inside centre instead of a second playmaker. But Flood's inclusion offers England a second kicking option and improved distribution which should help Manu Tuilagi, Ashton, Mark Cueto and Ben Foden.
Despite fielding Flood at inside centre just once before, Johnson insisted he has no concerns over the Leicester man's defence. "He is a smart defender in terms of where he needs to be and a pretty brave defender in terms of his technique," said Johnson. "I have no issues with him defensively at all."
Wilkinson confirmed a final decision over which of them will kick would not be made until after today's practice session at Eden Park. If England can beat France for the third successive World Cup, they will meet either Ireland or Wales in the semi-finals.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
It was another bumper year of rugby action in 2014; join us as we take a look back at some of the season's top statistics
Salary caps, Saints, sinners and scrums - Monday Maul looks back at the key talking points from an eventful weekend
The latest Week in Pictures takes in a fiery East Midlands derby and all the action from the Aviva Premiership and Top 14