LONDON, February 25- The bitter memory of a narrow defeat in Paris has left Martin Johnson and England desperate for revenge as they take on France in a potential Six Nations decider at Twickenham here Saturday.
Just over a year ago, Johnson watched from the rainswept stands at the Stade de France as England came within a whisker of denying France a Grand Slam before eventually suffering an agonising 12-10 defeat.
While a jubilant French team celebrated, Johnson and England were left to reflect on what might have been. Even now, Johnson regards the loss as the most disappointing moment of his England coaching career.
"We got ourselves in a position where we could have won that Test match last year. We didn’t," Johnson said at England’s team hotel this week.
"It was a really, really disappointing game to lose. Very, very disappointing. Because when you think what we’d done in their stadium against the Grand Slam champions.
"Sometimes you get beat and you’re clearly not good enough. But in that game I thought the guys played well. They put it out there right at the end of the season and it was just disappointing to lose like that.
"The players can go back to their clubs to prepare for the next game. We’re left sitting there thinking on Monday morning ‘if only.’"
Asked how long it had taken to get over the loss, Johnson replied: "Who says I’m over it?"
Yet despite the disappointment, that defeat in Paris has come to be seen as something of a watershed, a game where young talent like Ben Foden and Chris Ashton earned their first starts to kickstart England’s renaissance.
Since that loss, England have beaten Australia home and away while starting their current Six Nations campaign with wins over Wales and Italy.
France by contrast have struggled in the period since clinching the Grand Slam, the nadir coming in a 59-16 home defeat to Australia last November.
France recovered from that humiliation to open the Six Nations with victory over Scotland at home before scraping a 25-22 win over Ireland in Dublin.
Marc Lievremont’s side have not looked entirely convincing in either game however, and the French coach still appears to be no closer to settling on his strongest starting XV.
Lievremont has made no fewer than six changes, two positional, for this weekend’s match, compared to the solitary change made by Johnson, who has restored the fit again Andrew Sheridan at loosehead.
Yet while Lievremont’s willingness to chop and change may suggest a squad in flux, Johnson is adamant that the threats posed by France are many and varied.
"They’ve got an all-round game," Johnson said. "They’ve got a good attacking game but within that their scrummage can squeeze you, their lineout drives can squeeze you. They’re instinctive, they’re intuitive.
"They’ve got good ball carriers with good power and good speed. So they’re a very dangerous team.
"You have to be very alert with them. Because they’ll counter-attack if they have the opportunity."
Lievremont meanwhile has stoked up the atmosphere with his comments that England are universally disliked amongst their rivals.
"We have a bit of trouble with the English. We respect them, well in my case at least I respect them, but you couldn’t say we have the slightest thing in common with them," Lievremont said.
"We appreciate our Italian cousins with whom we share the same quality of life, we appreciate the Celts and their conviviality… and then among all these nations we have one huge thing in common: we don’t like the English!"
Johnson however laughed off Lievremont’s words.
"I quite like it. It’s international sport and that’s what it about," Johnson said.
"I wasn’t quite so sure about the Franco-Italian relationship so I’m glad he’s cleared that up. I think we’re fairly confident about how the Celts feel about us though."