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Six Nations
Johnson backs England to deliver
ESPNscrum Staff
January 31, 2011
England manager Martin Johnson in relaxed mood, England media briefing, Pennyhill Park Hotel, Bagshot, England, January 31, 2011
England manager Martin Johnson was in relaxed mood when he met the press on Monday © Getty Images
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England manager Martin Johnson has backed his side to shrug off their injury woes and deliver a clear statement of intent in their Six Nations opener against Wales on Friday night.

Johnson has been stripped of captain Lewis Moody and the influential duo of flanker Tom Croft and lock Courtney Lawes for the clash at the Millennium Stadium but believes his squad boasts the strength in depth weather those injury set-backs. Northampton's Tom Wood, Stade Francais flanker James Haskell and Leicester lock Louis Deacon are set to earn starting berths and Johnson has backed all three to step up to the challenge.

"We are confident in the guys we have got, we have got a good squad, and have good choices to make in the back row," Johnson told the Daily Telegraph. The England boss, who has been set a target of a top two finish by his Rugby Football Union paymasters, also denied that his side's defeat to South Africa suggested his side lacked something in terms of physicality.

"You always have to be physical, I talk about it all the time, you always have to win the collisions, the contest on the floor and the ruck area. That's the game. If you are winning that and you get quick ball, then you can play. If you aren't it is more difficult.

"Against South Africa our boys played probably the most physical team in the world and I think our boys stood up and played. If we had taken our chances and put scores on the board in the second half, the game could have been different. So I don't quite follow this perception that we got beaten up by South Africa. Our biggest problem against South Africa is that we gave the ball away 25 times."

England are relishing a return to the Millennium Stadium for what will be the last Six Nations fixture played on a Friday night and Johnson will be hoping to end a losing run in the Welsh capital dating back to 2003 when he captained the side to a 43-9 triumph just three months before they won the World Cup. "Being an Englishman in Cardiff on that weekend means you aren't the most popular, which is great. I'd rather have that than polite indifference," said Johnson. "The Millennium is a great place to play - the most hostile in the Six Nations for an Englishman.

"The stadium being in the middle of Cardiff. It is all very tight with a good bus journey. They want to beat England at rugby - that is not a secret and we want to win down there. It is a great occasion for an Englishman to go to Cardiff and play. The opening game of the tournament in a World Cup year adds something. You have to enjoy it. You want to play in the big games. We have to be ready."

Johnson also confirmed that Mike Tindall, who is set to captain the side in the absence of Moody, Hendre Fourie and Simon Shaw and Chris Ashton have recovered from knocks and are in the selection mix for Friday night.

Ashton, who will play his first Test in Cardiff, is looking forward to stepping into the Welsh dragon's lair and it was the prospect of nights like Friday that persuaded him to switch from rugby league in 2007. "It was a massive part of it. This doesn't happen in rugby league. You don't get these kind of games. It's massively exciting, I can't wait," said Ashton. "Listening to what Johnno says, I'm just so excited about the prospect."

Ashton got a taste of what he can expect in Northampton's fiery Heineken Cup encounters against the Cardiff Blues. "They were two hard games. That's what you get when you play a team like Cardiff. I'd like to think when a game is finished the game is finished," Ashton added. "This week it's Wales v England so there's enough bad blood there for it to spark over anyway.

"We didn't get a good start in the autumn, when we let ourselves down against New Zealand. We don't want to do that again. We don't want a slow start and this is the perfect chance and place to get going."

Ashton's stunning end-to-end try against Australia in November was today named as the the International Rugby Players' Association try of the year for 2010. Wales wing Shane Williams, who is set to start opposite Ashton on Friday night, was among those to be nominated for the award.

"It is good to beat a player of his calibre but I'm not concentrating too much on the try of the year award - I'd rather get a try over him on Friday night," said Ashton, who is confident he can handle the weight of expectation. "I just want to concentrate on being the best player in my position. Tries like that may come on the odd day. Hopefully one more will come on Friday."

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