England primed for Dublin date with destiny
"I said to them at the start of it, 'This is a great week. It is going to be tense, but let's enjoy it'."
Judging by the mood 48 hours before their Dublin date with destiny, England's players have taken Martin Johnson's words to heart.
The effervescent Chris Ashton is regaling journalists as usual. Shontayne Hape is joshing with Ben Foden about 'bagging' the music of Foden's girlfriend's band The Saturdays.
Steve Thompson is joking about the "bunch of fossils" among the England replacements, and memories of the last time they headed across the Irish Sea on Grand Slam business.
The fact that this year's Six Nations decider will be played on the same patch of real estate - albeit with slightly swankier surroundings - as the last time the red rose contingent were in this position has invited inevitable comparisons this week with 2003.
While my colleague Ben Dirs has already gone into the somewhat spurious nature of such of an exercise, the current side do not appear overly burdened by the prospect of what awaits them at 5pm on Saturday, or how they will be regarded if they emerge victorious.
Nervous anticipation and excitement? For sure. Fear and dread at the thought of fouling up? Far from it.
Shontayne Hape (left), who has 10 caps, will form a new centre partnership with his Bath team-mate Matt Banahan (right), who will also win his 11th cap on Saturday. Picture: Getty
Hape, 10 caps into his union Test career, may be experiencing the Championship for the first time, but he doesn't attempt to down-play the significance of what might occur in the Irish capital.
"This hasn't been done by an England team since 2003 and the English public have been waiting a long time for it," he says. "As players these are maybe once-in a-lifetime moments. Obviously we have people like Jonny Wilkinson and Steve Thompson who have been there and done it before, but guys like Mark Cueto [who wins his 50th cap on Saturday] have been around for a while and not played in one. For my first Six Nations it has been a dream really. I have played every game, we are 4 and 0 and on the verge of greatness, having to beat Ireland to win a Grand Slam. I can't fault it."
Whether you believe this England team would become 'great' or not by achieving a clean sweep is perhaps a debate we can save for after the game, or even this time next year. Were Wales (2005 and 2008), Ireland (2009) or France last year 'great' teams? Does it matter?
Most people would say sustained success is the model for greatness, and the 2003 England vintage bear that mantle because of what they went on to achieve in the World Cup later that year.
But the history books are not discerning that way. Should England prevail, the class of 2011 will be added to 12 of their predecessors, and 24 others (10 Welsh, nine French, three Scottish and two Irish) in the 108 previous editions of the Championship where one country has won every game.
Certainly it would not be an achievement to be sniffed at, even if clean sweeps have tended to become the norm - strange when you consider the extra game, and that the countries are more closely matched than ever - rather than the exception in the Six Nations era.
If England win on Saturday, it will be the eighth Slam in the last 10 years. But lest anyone think Hape or his team-mates are getting ahead of themselves, the Auckland-born centre is at pains to point out they are still a work in progress.
"We struggled a bit against Scotland last week and as a team we are still learning our lessons. We are still finding out what it takes to be a great team. We are trying to get there, but this is the position we want to be in. We are led by Johnno, and no-one has a better understanding of what it takes - he has been there and done it. I think everyone has faith and trust in each others' ability."
Despite a poor recent record of six defeats from their last seven meetings with Ireland, Dublin should not hold any fear for this emerging England.
They came close to tearing up the script on their last visit two years ago with a team far less capable than the current outfit, only losing by a point.
But then the boot was on the foot. Ireland were the ones with the pressure of a prospective Grand Slam hanging round their necks, and made heavy weather of victory, Brian O'Driscoll dragging his team over the line with a close-range try and a drop-goal.
This time it is England who have to answer the difficult questions. Can they live with the increased expectations? Will they be able to execute their skills at the critical moments, or will the pressure of what's at stake affect them? Will they continue to play a wider game to unleash the attacking prowess in their back three, or retire into a more cautious approach?
"We are not going to back down from what this team does," insisted Johnson on Thursday, a mantra Hape was happy to follow. "It is going to be a great occasion and we have got to make sure we enjoy it. We can't fall into our shells. There are going to be nerves, but we just have to keep doing what we've been doing which has made us successful until now."
Hape, who played in three successive Super League Grand Finals for the Bradford Bulls during his rugby league career, winning two, suddenly finds himself the senior partner at centre with the loss of captain Mike Tindall to injury and the promotion of Hape's Bath team-mate - and England 'roomie' - Matt Banahan to the starting side.
While he acknowledges the loss of Tindall's leadership and communication skills, Hape believes the introduction of the 6ft 7in, 17st 8lb Banahan "adds some spice" to an already combustible mix.
Banahan made a big impression after replacing Tindall against Scotland last week. Picture: Getty
"You have a young guy waiting for his chance and he is probably one of the biggest centres in the world. He showed last week with some blockbusting runs when he came on, he is a hard man to put down. 'Banners' is going to relish the challenge of going up against O'Driscoll. It is a chance for him to make a name for himself for years to come, and he is in great form."
Indeed, while O'Driscoll (111 caps) and Gordon D'Arcy (56) may have the edge in experience and creative nous, England may take refuge in brute force. It would certainly be a surprise if the muscular Banahan was not launched in D'Arcy's general direction in the opening exchanges, mindful of the way Aurelien Rougerie stampeded straight through the 14-stone centre in France's victory's in Dublin last month.
Such a direct approach would be welcomed by some, who believe England have not made enough hard yards in their past two outings before venturing into the wider spaces. Others may view it as further proof of a midfield respected for its defensive solidity, but derided as too one-dimensional and too slow in attack.
For Hape, who along with Tindall has borne the brunt of what criticism has been directed at a winning team, it merely acts as further motivation to reach the goals he set for himself when switching codes and joining Bath three years ago.
"I have been around too long to let that affect me, and so has 'Tins'," said the 30-year-old. "The only way to shut them up is to keep winning and putting in good performances.
"People like to have a stab at me - whether that is because I wasn't born in the country or I played another sport first, I don't know - but it is good to have that. They give you fire in the belly to do what you want to do."
The pyrotechnics won't be just internal on Saturday. With Ireland desperate to avoid equalling their joint worst performance in the Six Nations (two wins in 2008), and a second straight defeat at their spanking new home, a hostile welcome is guaranteed.
"I think the English and Irish are probably not particularly the most friendly [towards each other], so there is going to be fireworks," Hape concludes. Here's hoping.
You can also follow me when I'm out and about - in Dublin this Saturday - on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/BBCBrynPalmer