England will line-up at Twickenham this afternoon not sure where they stand in the Six Nations’ scheme of things.
The irony will not be lost on anyone wearing the green.
The gap of uncertainty as to the exact standing of the deposed champions spans the chasm between second, as in distant runners-up, and second last. Should they sign off by losing for the third time in a row, the ensuing ruck over the Red Rose implosion will be nothing compared to the one provoked the last time Ireland played England for a Grand Slam.
Those who were there at Lansdowne Road on that last Sunday of March in 2003, and the millions who weren’t, will remember well enough where England chose to stand for the pre-match formalities, how they stood on the Irish side of the red carpet and refused to budge.
To try and understand the English mindset requires a reminder of how they had managed to turn their pursuit of the ultimate Six Nations prize into almost an annual non-event.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Clive Woodward and his troops had become paranoid about the Grand Slam, or to be more accurate, about making a monumental mess of winning it.
Their gung-ho attitude under Lawrence Dallaglio’s cavalier captaincy at Wembley during the last Five Nations match in April 1999 cost them the first Slam against a Welsh team inferior in every respect except for their ability to keep bouncing off the ropes.
England threw another Slam away to Scotland in Edinburgh 12 months later and a third to Ireland at Lansdowne Road 12 months after that again during a championship prolonged from one season to the next by the ravages of the foot-and-mouth epidemic.
Perhaps they were fated never to win one. The thought would have been gnawing away at the back of many an English mind in their preparation for Dublin, the tension heightened by the fact that Ireland under Brian O’Driscoll’s youthful leadership were also playing for a Slam of their very own, in their case for the first time since losing to France in Paris 21 years earlier.
In the final moments before emerging into a sunlit Lansdowne Road, nobody felt the weight of England’s troubled Grand Slam past weigh more than Martin Johnson. The captain’s version of what happened next, as recorded in his autobiography, rejects the popular theory that he and his team had set out deliberately to antagonise their hosts.
“We lined up on the right-hand side as we walked out, in front of the red carpet,” Johnson said of an incident which would prompt the Rugby Football Union to issue a formal apology to the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, for the inconvenience caused.
“In the background, the crowd were giving us plenty of banter and grief and then the Ireland team tentatively started walking behind us. Then some guy with a walkie-talkie and a tie on walked up to me. ‘Johnno,’ he said. ‘You’ve gotta move the fellas. You’re standing in the wrong place.’
“Ah, a jobsworth. I have a deep-rooted dislike of petty officials. A lot of people mistakenly think that major rugby matches are put on for guys to play in and for people to come and watch. That is not the case. They are actually organised for the benefit of people in blazers and, sometimes, even in stewards’ uniforms.
“I said: ‘What? We’re not moving.’
A bit petty, maybe, but why should we? We had run out and stood towards the end we would be defending. I was in a somewhat petulant mood. It had become a stand-off and Backy (Neil Back) was in my ear going: ‘No, Johnno, you can’t concede on this.
“Again I refused. What would happen next? Nothing. They gave up. After the game some Irish bloke collared me and said, with a knowing smile and a finger wag: ‘Johnno, you know you always line up on the other side.’
“Eh? I had not played there since 1999 and I had absolutely no idea where we were supposed to line up. There is, apparently, some four-page document somewhere outlining the etiquette for visiting teams on matchdays.
“I had never seen it and if I had I wouldn’t have read it. It was an honest mistake and I’ll know next time, though I will have retired by then.’’
Not every Irishman or woman condemned Johnson for his stand. Ronan O’Gara, on the Ireland bench at the start of the match, witnessed the commotion as it unfolded.
“He (Johnson) got massive stick over it but if I was in his position, I’d have done the same thing,’’ O’Gara said.
“Their attitude that day was ‘not an inch.’ If he moved, it would have looked like they were backing down.
“After that they killed us. I came on for Humphs (David Humphreys) after an hour but there was only one out-half on the pitch that day and he was wearing white. Wilkinson was awesome. Two drop goals in the first half, one with either foot.
“Class. That English team were at the peak of their powers. We were after having a good season but we were nowhere near them.’’
England had their Grand Slam but that wasn’t the end of the story. Not for the first time, the RFU issued a formal apology at a Presidential level as they had done three years earlier for the failure of their losing captain, then Matt Dawson, to collect the Championship Cup from the Princess Royal after the Scots had ambushed the chariot at Murrayfield.
The RFU’s President, Derek Morgan, a retired dentist from the valleys of Gwent who played for England in the Sixties, wrote to his Irish counterpart making ‘a full and unreserved apology for events immediately before the kick-off.’
In turn, the IRFU President, Don Crowley, sent a written apology to the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, for ‘the embarrassing position in which she as placed by the failure of the English team to follow established and communicated protocol.’
Dublin may have seen the last of Johnson the towering player but not of Johnson the manager.
He made two subsequent visits to different parts of the city in what turned out to be an ill-fated role. Neither will be found amongst his list of all-time favourite experiences.
At Croke Park in 2009, Ireland edged home 14-13 in a season that ended with the Grand Slam back in Irish hands after 61 years. History might have taken a very different turn had England not lost their way in a blizzard of yellow cards, hence the abiding image of Johnson at ‘Croker’ banging his fist into the ledge of his seat in anger at Danny Care’s needless sin-binning.
Two years later Johnson was back at the new Aviva Stadium, in charge of an England team that had seen off Wales, Italy, France and Scotland. Only Ireland could stop them from a clean sweep and stop them they did, slamming the favourites by the grand margin of 24-8. The one assumption that can be safely made about Twickenham is that both sides ought to know where they stand before the match, if not after it.
W Greenwood 2, L Dallaglio, M Tindall, D Luger.
J Wilkinson 3, P Grayson.
J Wilkinson 2.
G Murphy; J Bishop, B O’Driscoll, capt., K Maggs, D Hickie; D Humphreys, P Stringer; M Horan, S Byrne, J Hayes; G Longwell, M O’Kelly; V Costello, K Gleeson, A Foley. Substitutions: P O’Connell (for Longwell, 57 mins), R O’Gara (for Humphreys, 63), A Quinlan (for Costello, 68), J Fitzpatrick (for Horan, 75) G Dempsey (for O’Driscoll, 80).
J Lewsey; J Robinson, W Greenwood, M Tindall, B Cohen; J Wilkinson, M Dawson; G Rowntree, S Thompson, J Leonard; M Johnson, capt., B Kay; R Hill, N Back, L Dallaglio.
J Worsley (for Hill, 22-29 mins), K Bracken (for Dawson, 25-34, 68-71), T Woodman (for Rowntree, 37-40, 45), D Grewcock (for Kay, 45-51), P Grayson (for Wilkinson, 54-60), D Luger (for Tindall, 68).
J Kaplan (South Africa).