No fewer than 12 of the 22-strong Samoan squad who gave England the heebie-jeebies on Saturday earn their daily bread in the Guinness Premiership. Nine of the Argentina starting team who did for France on opening night play in the top French league. According to Rob Andrew, the elite rugby director at Twickenham, these facts help to explain two things: the unprecedented competitiveness of this World Cup, and the difficulties faced by hosts and holders alike.
"The rugby economies in England and France are supporting six or seven international teams, not two," Andrew said yesterday. "If you look at the South Seas teams and at a side like Italy this is obviously the case. Take Georgia as another example. They have about 300 players in total, all of whom seem to be playing club rugby in France. There is no doubt that this wider exposure to the professional club game has been good for the tournament to date and if, as is usual at World Cups, the levels go up as the competition progresses, we'll have quite a show on our hands by the end of it. Is it good for England, though? That's another thing entirely."
Andrew, deeply involved in governance discussions between the Rugby Football Union and the Premiership clubs, accepts that the foreign influx will continue. "It's a question of market forces, and as we have a situation in which the clubs are privately owned and in which European employment legislation plays a part, there are some incredibly difficulty issues at the crux of what I've been trying to address for the last 12 months. We need a joined-up system that allows us to produce and develop international-quality players for England."
Such players have grown scarcer since England won the World Cup in Sydney, but Andrew went out of his way to congratulate those senior individuals at the heart of the champions' recovery from the 36-0 defeat to the Springboks 10 days ago. "There has been a lot of speculation about what went on in the camp after that game, some of it wide of the mark," he said. "When the world champions lose by that sort of margin, you would expect a reaction from the coaches and senior players. That reaction occurred and was managed in a professional fashion that had its reward in the victory over Samoa.
"They were difficult circumstances – we found ourselves in a knockout situation halfway through the group stage, which meant the squad were under as significant an amount of pressure as it was possible to imagine. The fact that they never fell behind against a pretty useful Samoan side was important. They got themselves into severe difficulties for a while in the second half but ended up scoring two late tries to go with the two early ones. It ended up as a better victory than the one over the same opponents in 2003."
Unsurprisingly, he was concerned that his old protégé at Newcastle, Jonny Wilkinson, should have found himself on the end of some "Chiropractor specials" – the name given to tackles associated with the Samoan centre Brian Lima. "I'm sure the citing commissioner was watching, so I haven't raised it," he said. Might Wilkinson expect more of the same from Tonga on Friday? "You'd hope not," he replied, not terribly convincingly.Reuse content