AS A kid in Queensland, Sam Johnson knew little or nothing about the Calcutta Cup and the fierce rivalry between the two teams who compete for it. Yet, while he may not have been able to quote chapter and verse about the history of the fixture, he had an intuitive understanding of the emotions involved that would come in very useful when he first moved to Glasgow and then became eligible to play for Scotland on residency.
Because, while we think of our sporting rivalry with our nearest neighbours as one which rouses the passions like no other, we are far from alone in that regard. The Australians, among many other countries, are just as eager to get the better of England in any sport, so Johnson did not need to have the importance of the fixture spelled out to him when he was selected for last year’s match at Twickenham.
“I had no idea of what it was when I was growing up, to be honest,” the Glasgow Warriors centre said yesterday (Tuesday). “But what I will say is that no one likes England. I mean it’s the same sort of thing as Australians – whether it’s cricket, rugby union, any sport. You fully respect England because of how good they are, but I don’t think anyone likes them when you’re growing up. We have the greatest respect for England because they are so good. You almost hate them for it.”
That 2019 game was Johnson’s fourth cap for his adoptive country, and, as it turned out, one of the greatest ever editions of international rugby’s oldest match. Scotland fought back from 31-0 to lead 38-31 with minutes to play, Johnson’s try being the one to put them ahead, only to be pegged back for the game to end 38-38. That meant the visitors held on to the trophy they had won by beating England at Murrayfield in 2018, but there was still a profound sense of disappointment for a team who had come so close to pulling off a first win at Twickenham since 1983.
“Last year was pretty unique,” Johnson continued. “To play a game like that again would be highly unlikely. There were some tough memories followed by some of the memories I will remember for the rest of my life.
“It was a great occasion. I remember after the game being totally gutted because it’s a game we should have won. You wouldn’t have thought that half an hour into it. From our point of view as Scotland players, we were disappointed because the opposition were celebrating the draw.
“I probably didn’t realise the magnitude of things at the time. I remember sitting on the bench at the end with my head in my hands. We were disappointed we had drawn. I was in shock at what I had achieved, but I didn’t think I’d won the game at that point because Test match rugby is a different animal altogether, and they came back and they got the draw.”
England managed a comeback of sorts against France on Sunday, but left themselves with too much to do and went down to a 24-17 defeat. Scotland also lost, of course, and by the same margin, being beaten 19-12 by Ireland – although in respects other than the scoreline they arguably came closer to pulling off an away win than England did.
Johnson believes France’s new defence coach Shaun Edwards deserves a lot of the credit for the home team’s performance in Paris, and draws hope from the fact that Scotland’s system under Edwards’ counterpart Steve Tandy, also a newcomer, is similar to the French one. “France probably shocked them a little bit with the way they played,” the 26-year-old added. England had a plan to start quickly and get points on the board, but France stuck it to them.
“Credit to Shaun Edwards for creating that new defensive system. I think ours is quite similar now with Steve Tandy.
“It’s just about matching them at the start of the game and putting them under pressure at the start of the game. Because, as Eddie [Jones] says, they rely on their brutality at the start of the game – brutality in general. We need to match that.
“They’ll be disappointed [by losing to France], but we lost as well. So it’s going to be two teams who are desperate and who are going to be as physical as possible – and see who comes out on top.
“I think we need to repeat [the Dublin] performance. We started really well, although we had a bit of a different plan going into it. They showed us different pictures and we exploited the gaps really well. It’s just disappointing that some of our finishing wasn’t quite there yet.
“I was happy with my performance. I wouldn’t say that I’m an intercept person who runs 80 metres – that’s not my sort of game. But the close-quarters stuff, whether it’s footwork at the line or getting on the front foot, things people don’t really see, that’s what I do. Hopefully it continues this week.”
England’s confirmation yesterday that Manu Tuilagi will miss Saturday’s match because of a groin strain brought out mixed emotions in Johnson. “I’m gutted for Manu. You want to be playing against the best people and he’s one of the best centres in the world. But I definitely was quite happy when I saw he was ruled out for this weekend – it saves a few bruises. Last year I was sore for a week.”