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August 2011

The fist of Jonno
31st August 2011

Never before in the history of rugby has the sight of Martin Johnson’s clenched fist been greeted with anything except alarm. Opponents of the former Leicester, England and Lions hard man knew to duck whenever that outsized appendage was heading their way. Those that didn’t react quickly enough - like Saracens hooker Robbie Russell and All Black scrum-half Justin Marshall - inevitably received a painful memento of the occasion.

Yet, one daily newspaper reckons we should all be glad to get a close-up of the England’s manager’s knuckles. It is, according to the correspondent’s interpretation of the television pictures beamed from Dublin’s Aviva Stadium on Saturday, a harbinger of good news. England’s traditionally stony-faced boss didn’t go so far as to punch the air during England’s first victory in the Irish capital since 2003, but he did make a fist, and that, to a newspaperman desperate for any sign that England have a chance at the fast-approaching World Cup, was good enough.

Johnson was obviously satisfied at an England performance that showed considerable improvement on their last outing - a disappointing defeat at the hands of an ordinary Welsh team in Cardiff - while the fact that England scored two tries in Dublin - they didn’t manage one in Wales - gave the cheer-leaders plenty of grounds for optimism.

The chief reason the latter were able to draw a straight line from the bunch of fives exhibited by the manager to the high fives they hope his team will exchange during the World Cup was Manu Tuilagi. The 20-year-old scored an excellent try after just five minutes - he now has 2 touchdowns in as many appearances for his adopted country - and was a force of nature in defence. With England captain Mike Tindall displaying unexpected deftness alongside him, and a rejuvenated Jonny Wilkinson showing an unexpected inclination to attack, England suddenly looked to have found a midfield with some pretensions to creativity. With a pack of forwards that are as always, big ugly and awkward, England look, even to the most mildly jingoistic of observers, to be heading south with momentum as well as optimism.

It’s relatively easy to see why. England should top a group where the toughest fixture looks to be the first - against Argentina - and the must-win tie looks to be the last - against Scotland - and if that happens they should face France in the quarter-finals and Australia in the semis. The sporting truism that anything can happen in knock-out matches is given extra allure by the knowledge that England have beaten both teams fairly regularly and relatively recently. A rematch against either holds no terrors.

Which is surprising because not only was France’s victory over Ireland in Dublin considerably more comfortable than England’s, but also because, only a few hours before the latter result, the Wallabies had turned the form-book on its head with a Tri-Nations‘ title-sealing victory over World Cup favourites New Zealand. Australia were good value for their victory and the quality of the rugby they produced in inflicting a second successive defeat on the All Blacks was of a far higher quality than anything on offer in Dublin.

Yet England’s cheerleaders cling to the notion that the Wallabies are vulnerable at scrum-time, a weakness that was ruthlessly exploited by England in the Marseille quarter-final four years ago but not particularly noticeable in Brisbane. England’s exhilarating victories over Australia - in Sydney last summer and at Twickenham in the autumn - have been allocated an import they possibly don’t merit, while the full impact of the Wallabies’ most recent triumph appears not to have been fully digested.

By my reckoning, it not only makes Australia even more credible pretenders to the world title but it’s also just the wake-up call that the All Blacks need. If any defeat can be said to be perfectly-timed, this was it. Before it, New Zealand had seemed so far ahead of their rivals that the previous week’s Port Elizabeth defeat by South Africa could shrugged off as a minor inconvenience. Home advantage, sentiment and sheer class would surely count for most when the competition really hotted up. Nothing, it seemed, could stop the All Blacks winning the World Cup.

After it, they will feel the hurt of surrendering the Tr-Nations' title to Australia for a very long time. But, as they kick off their World Cup campaign a week on Friday against Tonga they will be taking absolutely nothing for granted. They’re still the team to beat.