Time for Ireland to 'do a Johnson'
The infamous 'stand-off' of 2003 might just get some airplay this week. Just a little.
Martin Johnson's first return to Lansdowne Road; the fact that he has graduated from captain to manager and is poised to land England's first Grand Slam since lifting the trophy that afternoon; Brian O'Driscoll once again standing in his path as Ireland captain; St Patrick's week and a World Cup looming.
Mash it all together and you have all the elements you could possibly require for another jingoistic, tub-thumping showdown -- the main difference this time around being that pride not silverware is Ireland's primary motivation.
History has recorded the 2003 incident as Johnson disrespecting Mary McAleese but, while the Irish president did have to get her feet dirty, that was never Johnson's intention.
As far as Johnson was concerned, McAleese was irrelevant: this was all about gaining the psychological advantage for a team that had blown a succession of Grand Slams on the final day and were determined to make their point ahead of their World Cup challenge six months later. It worked.
First of all, there is the issue of the elongated pre-match rituals for Ireland home games. It is truly ridiculous for pumped-up players to emerge from the dressing-room bulling for battle only to be forced to stand around for between 12 and 15 minutes.
Admittedly, a chunk of this delay is unavoidable due to the need to play 'Ireland's Call' as well as the national anthem. While Phil Coulter's ditty is not the most inspiring piece of music ever written, it is a necessary trade-off for Ireland rugby's status as a 32-county game.
Of course, the song has its legions of detractors, and it is noticeable how many people make a point of sitting down when it is sung (a rather pointless and self-indulgent backside protest). The problem is when you have 'Ireland's Call' alongside the two established anthems, the pre-match process is unavoidably dragged out -- add McAleese (who emerges with her entourage to the first few bars of 'Amhran na bhFiann' and then takes four or five minutes to meet players, officials and mascots) to the equation and the delay veers into the preposterous.
Players just want to play, no more so than Johnson on March 30, 2003. So, when he led his team to the red carpet aware of the dragged-out niceties to come, being asked to relocate to the other side by some bloke wearing an IRFU anorak and an earpiece (the unfortunate operations director Martin Murphy) was a protocol too far.
"I asked him to move," recalled Murphy, "and he said 'no, I'm not f**king moving -- get your team to move'." Further efforts received the same curdled response and the impasse was established.
"With due respect to the Irish president, people don't come here to watch the presentations," was Johnson's take on the incident. "They come here to watch a game of rugby. It's all a fuss about nothing. It was not premeditated and was not a case of us being arrogant.
"But the crowd's reaction made it a big issue. It became a stand-off. It was one of those things that you think about on a Monday morning and wonder whether it was important. But at the time it was."
You could say that, alright. Whether or not Johnson deliberately stood on the wrong side, he made a powerful statement, one that was ultimately reinforced by England's emphatic 42-6 victory.
When someone is trying to provoke a reaction, the best response is apathy. If Ireland had merely lined up on the other side of the carpet as though nothing was amiss, Johnson's psychological blow would have fizzled out on a 'who cares where we stand?' basis.
As it was, to emphasise the ceding of territory (which, against Ireland's former colonial masters carried extra weight) with the unedifying sight of the Irish team and president relocating to grass immediately gave the advantage to Johnson. It turned out to be a masterstroke and further evidence of Johnson's capacity to inspire.
He is an admirable figure with a CV that, along with that Grand Slam, includes leading the Lions to their last series success and captaining the only northern hemisphere side to have won the World Cup.
Now, he is bringing those qualities to bear on an England team which, in terms of individual talents, is considerably behind their 2003 vintage. However, Johnson has instilled them with a sense of purpose and self-belief which is in stark contrast to the uncertainty surrounding the Ireland squad heading into this contest.
However, the encouraging, and frustrating, aspect from an Irish point of view is that Declan Kidney's side are as good as, if not better than, Johnson's but are struggling to bring all their elements together in cohesive fashion.
They are not helped by coming down consistently on the wrong side of the oft-referenced 'margins' that are so critical in determining results. Against Italy, referee Romain Poite was a major hindrance; they then came agonisingly close to a fourth try against France that would have secured a merited victory; Nigel Owens and some rash breakdown play made the win over Scotland far more tortuous than it should have been and, last weekend, one of the worst decisions in the history of international rugby cost them a victory in Wales.
They could so easily have been heading into this encounter in pursuit of their own Grand Slam and, while none of that should dilute Ireland's self-imposed difficulties, the sense of injustice and frustration will certainly add to the motivation -- always high for meetings with England in any case.
Johnson laid down a marker in 2003 and he was right, the result proved as much. Now Ireland need to replicate that intransigence.
It is not about where you stand, it is about taking a stand.