Ireland v England, Six Nations, Lansdowne Road, March 19
O'Connell: England reflect Johnson's strengths
March 18, 2011
Ireland skipper Paul O'Connell is an admirer of England manager Martin Johnson © Getty Images
England's Six Nations is no surprise when you consider they are now mentored by the man who captained the team to a Grand Slam in 2003, according to Ireland lock Paul O'Connell.
Martin Johnson's Grand Slam-chasing England epitomise Johnson the player, said O'Connell, who revealed he has a "massive respect" for the England manager ahead of Saturday's Dublin showdown.
Johnson was captain eight years ago when England completed their last clean sweep with a 42-6 victory in a winner-takes-all decider at Lansdowne Road.
O'Connell, a Test rookie at that stage, came on as a second-half substitute in one of only three duels with Johnson, the other two occurring on Heineken Cup duty for Munster against Leicester. Comparisons were often drawn between the two second rows early in O'Connell's career, and the Munster forward is an admirer of his predecessor as Lions captain.
"I have massive respect for England, for their coach and what he stands for in rugby," he said. "I didn't play Johnson that often but always knew he was a very uncompromising, tough guy.
"When he was captain, what he stood for was all about physicality and never being intimidated. All the basics, such as set-piece excellence and mauling, were there when he was playing for England. They were his strengths and I see a lot of that in the England team now - all the ingredients that make a successful team."
Six wins in their last seven meetings dating back to 2004, when Ireland were the first team to beat the freshly crowned world champions, have seen the balance of power in the fixture shift to Dublin. The old fear factor of facing England has now been replaced by expectation of victory, though O'Connell notes their rapid progress over the last year.
"We have a very good record against them in recent years. They they had a sort of transition after 2003," he said. "They got a big result against Australia last summer and that has kick-started their year and belief. It will be an incredibly physical game, they have a very big side. Physicality is something they always bring to their game whether they are playing well or poorly. It's a massive fixture."
Even if they lose at Aviva Stadium on Saturday, England should already have done enough to claim the title thanks to their commanding points difference. Only Wales can prevent them from lifting their first significant piece of silverware since 2003, but they would have to prevail in Paris by over 20 points and hope Ireland manage the same in Dublin.
With the World Cup looming, however, the Grand Slam remains the ultimate prize. O'Connell, part of the Irish team that managed the achievement in 2009, expects England to feed off the occasion.
"In 2009 we had a nervous week before the final game. We'd been there before in Grand Slam deciders and lost," he said. "England are in a similar situation in that they're probably very aware there's a Grand Slam on the line, the first one for them for a long time. The pressure will be tough at times, but it will probably make them better."
While England are chasing honours, Ireland face the less illustrious challenge of playing to avoid equalling their worst Six Nations performance. Discipline, confidence, selection and tactics have all come under the microscope during a torrid championship, but O'Connell insists there is time to address the deficiencies before the World Cup begins in September.
"Sometimes we've put together patches of play which have been just as good as anything we have done, certainly since I've been involved in Ireland," he said. "But at times we've chosen, for some reason, to sit back and soak up the pressure and you can't do that. Obviously our results at the moment wouldn't be good enough in a World Cup, particularly if we were in the knockout stage - we'd be gone! But we have enough time before the World Cup to iron out things."
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