England manager Martin Johnson is still haunted by the memories of last year’s defeat to France in Paris – and he wants revenge.
Although England’s performance that night proved to be a watershed in the development of his young side, Johnson reflects on the 12-10 defeat as the most disappointing of his coaching career.
France celebrated their Grand Slam triumph while Johnson and his coaching team were left fuming at referee Bryce Lawrence and England’s wasted opportunity of a victory in Paris.
Twelve months on, England and France will lock horns at Twickenham tomorrow in “Le Crunch” as the only two remaining unbeaten teams in the championship.
Only one team can survive with their Grand Slam ambitions intact and Johnson believes it will be the perfect opportunity to exorcise those Paris ghosts.
“Our guys gave a good account of themselves last year. We got ourselves in a position where we could have won that Test match and we didn’t,” Johnson reflected.
“It was a really, really disappointing game to lose. I mean a very, very disappointing game to lose when you think we had done what we did in their stadium, against the Grand Slam champions.
“It was my most disappointing defeat. There were some real disappointing calls that changed the game fundamentally.
“Afterwards, the players are back at their clubs getting ready for the next game. We are sitting there thinking ‘if only’.
“That is the difficult thing for us. Once it is done on Monday morning it is a quiet place. Who says I am over it?”
England are in a far better place now and those improvements date back to that night in Paris, when Johnson sent out a team invigorated by new blood and bolder ambition.
Toby Flood replaced Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half. Chris Ashton and Ben Foden made their Test debuts and Tom Palmer kick-started his stuttering international career.
All four players have been ever-present since that day and are the heart-beat of a new and fast-improving side. Ashton has scored nine tries in nine Tests.
England head into the France clash on the back of their first victory over Wales in Cardiff since 2003 and their biggest Six Nations win in a decade, registered against Italy.
“We will go out and give it an absolute crack. The good thing with these lads is they will go out and play,” Johnson said. “Over the last 18 months we have had a group of young players who have forced their way into the team, they have had their opportunities to play and taken them.
“The form and consistency has improved and you start getting some of the good things that happened last week and the week before (against Wales and Italy).
“France have a very good all-round game and are dangerous but we back ourselves as well. You want to be in the headlines and hopefully we can do that with our performance on Saturday.”
If England are to win on Saturday they must find a way to neutralise the French pack, in particular tight-head Nicolas Mas, who was the foundation of their victory last year.
England, with Tim Payne at loosehead, failed to cope with Mas and the resultant pressure led to them being repeatedly penalised before changes were made at half-time.
Scrum coach Graham Rowntree believes the England unit are better for that Paris experience and on Saturday they will have Andrew Sheridan back at loosehead.
Sheridan has recovered from the back spasm which kept him out of the Italy game – and Johnson did not mince his words about how important the Sale prop will be to England’s cause.
“It is pretty clear when you look at what was happening last year, we have to be very strong on our loosehead side,” Johnson said.
“Mas likes to get into that gap and put a lot of pressure through there. We have to stop him. We know it’s coming. We have got to be up to it.
“They will want to get an advantage at the scrum rugby-wise and that will also be a psychological advantage.
“Sheridan is strong and powerful and he stands up in the toughest physical challenges in world rugby.”