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Rugby World Cup 2011: England manager Martin Johnson demands ‘big start’ against Argentina

With blood dripping from a two-inch gash in his leg, Martin Johnson set the tone on Thursday for what awaits England, his training ground accident from a football kickabout neatly capturing the mood. This World Cup is about to get real. Saturday night at the Otago Stadium will be anything but a gentle opener.

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Argentina may not have the stars of four years ago when they toppled France in a dramatic beginning to the 2007 Rugby World Cup, but the fury is still there, the deep-rooted desire to be true to each other and to the Pumas shirt. If Argentina’s esprit de corps is to be suppressed – and neither France nor Ireland managed it four years ago – then England will have to be ready for combat. Any hint of complacency, any thought that this is a mere loosener for tougher battles ahead, and England will be doomed to a night of ignominy.

Johnson was asked if the game of football had not been rather brutal. “Yeah, but we won,” came the reply.

If this England side do have frills to offer with the likes of Chris Ashton and Ben Foden, then they are for the most part sculpted in Johnson’s image: stern, unremitting and one-eyed in the pursuit of victory. That much was evident yesterday, from the dribbling wound to the rallying cry.

“This is it now, this is the real thing,” said Johnson. “And we’ve got to deal with that. We’ve absolutely got to get it right in the moment. This is the sort of game to grab your attention. They want a big start, we want a big start, and that’s what makes these matches fun.”

‘Whatever it takes’ has always been Johnson’s mantra, a philosophy that is reflected in his selection for Saturday’s gripping first fixture. As was the case in the warm-up match against Ireland a fortnight ago, Johnson has put his faith in those who have climbed to the Rugby World Cup summit before, notably Steve Thompson at hooker and Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half with Mike Tindall leading the side from the unfamiliar berth of inside-centre.

The one significant change to the expected line-up sees Delon Armitage drafted in at wing for Mark Cueto who is still recovering from the back spasm problem that forced him off after 20 minutes at the Aviva Stadium. Armitage is not a regular wing but Johnson admires his sparky persona even if it does occasionally get him in trouble. Better a warrior than wimp.

But it is in the forward pack where England expects. If England can match the Pumas at the scrummage and gain an edge in the other forward exchanges, they will be in a good place. The chances are that they will, albeit they are under no illusions as to how difficult that might be. Ah, but surely Argentina are not the force that once they were as shown by their defeat in Wales three weeks ago?

“They will be a different beast this weekend,” said the laconic Dan Cole, sparing with his words but invariably spot-on. “It’s the World Cup and it’s us.”

Even so, England ought to be able to contend with whatever Argentina has to offer. Not that any form of dominance up-front will be easily attained. Even if the likes of hooker Mario Ledesma and prop Rodrigo Roncero are in their twilight years, there is sure to be a rage against the dying of the light. Patricio Albacete has been one of the pre-eminent locks in Europe for several seasons in the colours of Toulouse, while the back-row of Juan Leguizamón, Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe and Julio Cabello want for nothing against any other combinations. It won’t be an evening for the faint-hearted.

“The whole eight is going to come at us,” said Cole. “Even if we can’t get drawn into individual battles, we’ve got to be prepared for that. We can’t back down and be bullied.”

England have a blend of aged wisdom and youthful vigour up front. They will need both ends of the spectrum to be in good order, from the solidity of Andrew Sheridan to the dynamism of Courtney Lawes. The Northampton lock is already at an interesting stage of his fledgling international career, a player with bags of exciting potential but one who has to show more visibly at Test level. In short, he’s got to impose himself. He doesn’t lack relish for the fight, metaphorically or otherwise, that’s for sure.

“I don’t mind a scuffle every now and again,” said Lawes. “It doesn’t get under my skin but it might get under theirs. We can’t take a step backwards, especially against Argentina.”

Lawes has no anxieties about Thompson replacing his Northampton team-mate, Dylan Hartley, at hooker.

“It’s about the quality of the hooker, not who it is,” said Lawes, praising Thompson for the accuracy of his throwing.

England will hope to get purchase at the line-out, through the expertise of Tom Croft and Lawes. James Haskell has proved a master at adapting to different positions in the back-row and in the continued absence of Lewis Moody will wear the No 7 shirt. England have to be slick at the breakdown as well as imperious.

Their minds are set to that end. Four years ago they stuttered through their opening game against the USA. Any repeat, and they will surely lose. Johnson was not entertaining any such thoughts on Thursday. Nor were his team. They are all about to get serious, and victory should follow.

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