In an extended interview with Donal Lenihan in tomorrow’s Irish Examiner, the England rugby coach — who was captain in 2003 — explains how the pre-game formalities became headline grabbing news around the world, and insists there was no insult intended to our president.
Johnson met up for interview with his Lions manager from the 2001 tour to Australia this week ahead of tomorrow’s sell-out Six Nations clash at the new Aviva Stadium on Lansdowne Road. And in the course of a fascinating insight into one of the game’s greats, he reveals: “I’d like to put on the record that I never made President McAleese stand on the grass because we had the red carpet in front of us. It was the Ireland boys (who didn’t have the carpet in front of them). If they had stayed where they were, then she would have been on the red carpet.”
Johnson said that if referee on the day, Jonathan Kaplan, had said “guys, shuffle up”, the English would have moved.
“I wouldn’t have thought anything about it. But this guy came out of nowhere to move us (and) it felt like it was just some random guy and I just said, ‘Don’t tell us to do anything, pal’. And then, BANG, it was just such a huge stand-off and I had that thought in my head: what have we got ourselves into now?
“It was never pre-planned, never intended. President McAleese walked onto the red carpet in front of us. Someone said afterwards it was their (Ireland’s) lucky side, but I’m not fussed with those things. You normally walk out the side that you warmed up on and that is what we did that day.”
Johnson also speaks of his love for the raw atmosphere of the old Lansdowne Road, and says that in that 2003 Grand Slam decider, he had a career moment before the kick off.
“As we went to line up to receive the kick-off, the crowd sang ‘The Fields of Athenry’ and that was... I’ve only had that once in my career, when the hairs actually stand up on the back of your neck… and that was it. The noise that came off the terrace was immense, because it was so much more condensed. It was a heck of a battle.”
Meanwhile Nick Easter will skipper Johnson’s England tomorrow after it was confirmed that Mike Tindall has been ruled out of the game with an ankle injury. Matt Banahan will start at inside centre in Tindall’s place, the only change to the side that beat Scotland 22-16 at the weekend.
And the 2003 World Cup-winning captain insists it will be a relatively smooth transition as Banahan plays alongside Shontayne Hape in the centres.
“It’s a big blow for us and really disappointing for Mike — he’s had a few injuries over the years,” said Johnson.
“He’s been with us all the way through the autumn and this campaign and led us very well. But Matt Banahan has been in great form. He was on the wing early on but he’s played quite a bit at 13 with Bath and he’s done a lot of reps there in training. He’s been very good and hopefully it will be a pretty smooth transition.”
The 6ft 7in Jerseyman starts at outside centre for only the second time in a Test match, his only midfield start in a Test match thus far came against Samoa in November.
But the 24-year-old is not fazed by the prospect of going head-to-head with Brian O’Driscoll. “This is a big game, it is something to look forward to and an opportunity to take with both hands,” Banahan said. “I have done as much as a I can to learn the position. These big games are where you find out about yourself, where you find out if you can cut it.
“O’Driscoll is a fantastic player, one of the world’s best centres. He is brilliant in attack, he’s brilliant in defence and he’s got great rugby knowledge. All I can do is my best, do my basics as well as I can and hopefully I can get one up on him.”
And how would Banahan propose to do that? “I weigh more than him,” laughed the 17-stone former loose forward, whose torso features a tattooed scene of a Lancaster bomber in action.
Had things turned out differently, Banahan could have been playing for Ireland against England tomorrow, he revealed.
“My Dad’s great-grandparents are from Cork and coming from Jersey I could have played for any home nation. It was only ever going to be Ireland or England,” Banahan said. “I was close to playing for Ireland. I had an email and then I went away on England Sevens and I got classed as capped.”
Having decided to keep Tom Croft on the bench despite his match-winning cameo against Scotland, Johnson has only used 17 starting players in the Championship — injured prop Andrew Sheridan being the other — with David Strettle coming on to the bench in Banahan’s place.
But with the likes of Jonny Wilkinson and Danny Care vital in the wins over France and Scotland, Johnson believes his squad’s strength in depth sets them apart.
“The depth of the squad has been good,” he added. “Lots of guys have stepped in and done very well. When they get their opportunities they’ve generally been taking them in the last year or so.”