On HIS first day facing the English media as Scotland coach, Scott Johnson managed to drive along a humour bypass south of the border and provoke the ire of Andy Farrell.
At Wednesday’s RBS Six Nations launch in London, Johnson was asked by an English journalist how he felt about England having a handful of players out injured, and resorted to his trademark humour in pleading that the questioner was making him very sad worrying about England’s problems.
“That just leaves you with another 40,000 players to pick from, it’s a sad story,” he said to great laughter in the room.
It was clear that he had his tongue firmly inserted in his cheek but, with English newspapers yesterday claiming that Johnson had been “mocking” England’s injury woes, assistant coach Farrell seemed to lose his sense of humour too.
“It is funny, isn’t it? Very funny. Hilarious,” he said dryly, before adding sternly: “We are saying plenty of things behind closed doors.”
Farrell made his debut for England against Scotland at Twickenham in 2007, after switching late from Rugby League but his son Owen made his debut in the fixture last season and is likely to feature again at Twickenham next weekend. Farrell senior is excited by the history around the game and believes there is little between the sides in 2013.
He said: “The last four games have been won by an average of four points. That is the drop of a ball. It is because of the rivalry, the history, it’s a big game for all concerned. Talking to a few of the Scots, they feel they let Andy Robinson down and so they have a point to prove to themselves.
“We have to get good at being consistent and not worrying about Scotland.
“Obviously, they come into it but we feel we have got a few things going, we know what starts to make us tick.
“We have been very hard to beat. The scorelines have always been close when we have lost but consistently winning with a top performance is what we are after.
“We will be going all out to do that against Scotland. We still have to find that consistency and top-level performance.”
Full-back rivals Alex Goode and Ben Foden have been released to play for Saracens and Northampton respectively this weekend, to gain match-time after recent injury lay-offs but both are in the frame to play in the Calcutta Cup.
“There remains doubt over centre Manu Tuilagi. He is close to returning from the ankle injury which ruled him out of Leicester’s Heineken Cup win against Toulouse last weekend and the England management are prepared to give the Samoan-born star until Tuesday to prove his fitness.
Tuilagi, who missed last year’s Calcutta Cup match through injury, was a key figure in England’s victory over New Zealand, scoring one try and creating two others in England’s record 38-21 triumph on December 1.
“He has done unbelievably well for us,” said Farrell.
“The physios are definitely not writing him off. They think he has a fighting chance but it would be unfair to leave it until the end of next week.”
England spent yesterday running through different midfield combinations, with Billy Twelvetrees and Jonathan Joseph potential alternatives to Tuilagi.
Away from the training field, head coach Stuart Lancaster, the former Scotland under-19 cap, continued with the build-up that worked well last year by inviting leading coaches from other disciplines to speak to his squad. This week it was the turn of Jessica Ennis’ athletics coach Toni Minichiello and Ashes-winning cricket captain Andrew Strauss, who both addressed the squad on dealing with expectation and emotion in order to deliver a top-class performance.
“It was really interesting,” Farrell said. “They have both been brilliant at dealing with expectation. We want to be world class going up to the World Cup, we want to be dealing with expectations. You don’t want to hide away from it.
“The best thing about the New Zealand win was having no fear and still performing. That tells me these boys can deal with all sorts of predicaments.”