Johnson seeks home comfort in 'Le Crunch'

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LONDON, March 13 – Martin Johnson has spent more time talking about discipline in recent weeks than some school teachers do in their entire careers; Sunday's Six Nations match against France will show if his pupils are starting to learn their lessons.

STEVE_BORTHWICKEngland’s yellow card tally of 10 in four matches has been punishingly high and sin-binnings have played a major role in their recent Six Nations defeats by both Wales and Ireland.

However, both of those losses were away from home while this weekend’s match is at Twickenham.

Rugby lore states that away wins are all the more difficult to achieve because of the influence a partisan crowd can have on both the home side and the referee.

So, in the context of this match, if England concede at Twickenham anything like the 18 penalties they did during a 14-13 loss to Ireland in Dublin they will have run out of one more excuse for their bad behaviour.

Both England and France find themselves in similar positions.

Once the dominant forces in the European game, they are each struggling to discover their best sides under the guidance of former Test players Johnson and Marc Lievremont.

Johnson though hopes England can follow the example set by France in their 21-16 win over Wales in Paris which ended the champions’ hopes of back-to-back Grand Slams.

"They got behind in the penalty count early in that game, they made mistakes, but they had that energy and momentum and got the crowd into the game," Johnson, England’s 2003 World Cup winning captain, explained.

"I think it’s important we have a big start, and lift the crowd," Johnson added. "When you are at home you want to dominate that first quarter and let the opposition know they are going to have a very tough day."

Johnson has recalled experienced and powerful lock Simon Shaw to help counter the threat posed by a strong French pack with in-form flanker Tom Croft taking over from James Haskell.

Paul Sackey has a calf injury but Johnson said he would have been dropped on form grounds anyway for Ugo Monye which seemed tough on the Wasps wing given how little he’s seen of the ball this tournament.

England attack coach Brian Smith said greater accuracy was required in promising positions.

"When we’ve got ball in hand, we need to be precise. Against Ireland there were three or four times we had overlaps and people in space. If we can keep our composure when making decisions we’ll be all right."

Whether England have the desire, and indeed ability, to put the likes of dangerous full-back Delon Armitage into try-scoring positions before the game is up, remains to be seen.

In the meantime Smith, echoing Johnson, urged England to stay on the right side of referee Stuart Dickinson.

"The breakdown is going to be critical. We know when we’ve got the ball we’ve got to look after it because he will give reverse-penalties against the attacking side." Smith said of his fellow Australian.

"Defensively we’ve been sound and we’ve got to trust it."

France coach Lievremont has restored Sebastien Chabal to his natural back-row home and brought in lock Jerome Thion and prop Lionel Faure for a fixture that looks like living up to its ‘Le Crunch’ nickname.

Having got lucky when Benoit Baby, a centre playing at fly-half, was injured against France, Lievremont has wisely opted to install replacement stand-off Francois Trinh-Duc in the No 10 jersey.

Lievremont, assessing England, said: "I’m afraid of the wounded pride of this team. Everyone’s saying their coach is sitting in an ejector seat, but everyone was saying the same thing about us 10 days ago."

France, whose only defeat in this Six Nations came in a 30-21 defeat by leaders Ireland in the match of the tournament so far, have also had problems at the breakdown.

"I hope the referee will be strict at the breakdown," said Lievremont.

"But we must do better in this area as well. We were penalised 10 times against Wales, and that’s too much."
For England, that kind of penalty count would represent progress.

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