Johnno relishing Paris clash


BAGSHOT, March 18 – England manager Martin Johnson said playing at the Stade de France was "what it's all about" after naming the side he hopes will spoil France's Six Nations Grand Slam hopes on Wednesday.France, the team of the tournament, come into Saturday’s Paris finale on the back of a six-try thrashing of Italy with coach Marc Lievremont making just one, unforced, change in recalling giant centre Mathieu Bastareaud.

England’s last match, by contrast, saw them fail to score a try in a dour 15-15 draw away to Scotland.

And Johnson, who has made six changes in all including dropping fly-half Jonny Wilkinson, now with French side Toulon, to the bench was still unsure Wednesday if captain Steve Borthwick would overcome a knee injury that threatens the lock’s participation against ‘Les Bleus’.

On current form, few would back against a French clean sweep on Saturday but England’s last two matches against France in Paris, the 2007 World Cup semi-final and a 2008 24-13 Six Nations win, have ended in victory.

"It’s a huge challenge to play in Paris but it’s one we are all looking forward to," Johnson told reporters at England’s training base here on Wednesday.

"France will be under pressure to win the Grand Slam. For us, it’s time to front up.

"They’ve played very well and been the form team of the tournament.

"But this is not a nothing game for England. I said to the guys who haven’t been there before this is big-time rugby.

"Under lights at the Stade is what it’s all about."

Johnson, explaining his decision to drop Wilkinson – who went off four minutes into the second half of the Scotland draw because of a head knock – with Toby Flood, the fly-half’s replacement at Murrayfield, said: "Jonny took a number of bangs and heavy blows.

"We need at least two players in every position and we would have been happy to pick Toby in every game so far.

"Toby’s been an on-field general for us in the past two years. Ahead of a World Cup, he needs to play in that position over the next 18 months as well as Jonny.

"But Jonny is still a world-class player. If I thought Jonny was on the decline, I wouldn’t have picked him for the last seven matches."

"The guys on the bench will be playing in the last quarter and that’s the most important quarter of the game. I’m sure Jonny will be disappointed he’s not starting but he’s a team player."

England recalled Mike Tindall – who played in the 2003 World Cup-winning team captained by Johnson – and dropped less imposing centre Mathew Tait in what appeared an attempt to counter the power of Bastareaud.

However, England defence coach Mike Ford insisted: "It’s not just Mike’s job to stop Bastareaud.

"They (France) have put Bastareaud in to bolster their backline but he’s got two good half-backs in front of him in Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc.

"But we are confident we can stand up to them. They are not doing anything special but they are doing the basics well."

Johnson, turning to Borthwick, said: "There was something showing on the scan. We’ve put him in a brace and he’ll be re-assessed on Thursday.

"I don’t think it will unsettle the guys," insisted Johnson, who added he had a stand-in skipper in mind without naming the new potential captain."

After seeing two specialists, Borthwick said: "One was more positive than the other. We want to deal in a black and white world.

"But in medicine things aren’t black and white."

As for France, Johnson said: "If you let then offload the ball to deep runners, that’s the traditional nightmare. They do it better than anyone when they are on-song."

Asked how England might surprise France, Johnson replied: "We need to execute better. Maybe that will surprise them."