There are a thousand things to consider in the opening stages of a World Cup tournament, without unanticipated problems interfering with the peaking process. Jonny Wilkinson's ankle injury is very definitely a problem, one that will need careful management if it is not to knock England out of kilter for the entire tournament. Back in 2003, we had a similar issue with the flanker Richard Hill, who was a key member of our pack. Getting Richard right for the latter stages of the competition was an important factor in winning the trophy.
Four years ago, we had the advantage of back-row reinforcements of high quality. By picking Martin Corry in our 30-man squad, we had no need to rush Richard as he recovered from a hamstring injury. With Lewis Moody and Joe Worsley also there to share the workload, we were in no hurry to bring in a replacement, either. Good selection had given us the luxury of setting a realistic deadline for Richard's return.
This is crucial for any player. If England, who do not have the depth of support in Wilkinson's position that we had in Hill's, allow themselves to be pressured into moving Jonny forward too fast, it will be counter-productive. In the worst-case scenario, he will try to do too much and reinjure himself. Almost as bad, he will underperform and sap his own confidence – not to mention the confidence of everyone else – for the remainder of the tournament. This has to be handled with great sympathy and considerable nerve. To lose Wilkinson for the entire World Cup would be a major minus for the champions.
I don't believe morale has been seriously affected. Everyone understands the intensely physical nature of the sport and players operating at Test level should be equipped to cope with the unexpected. However, the England camp will certainly be disappointed that Wilkinson injured himself in training. If a top-drawer performer picks up a nasty knock during a match, fair enough. It happens. But for this to happen in the build-up to the opening match of a World Cup is a downer.
That said, all serious rugby teams go into a World Cup assuming they will use all 30 players at some point. I have no doubt that Olly Barkley will do an excellent job – from what I hear, he impressed everyone with his application during the pre-tournament camp. His excellent performance in the Churchill Cup victory over the New Zealand Maori was a big step forward, and there were many good things about his display against France at Twickenham last month.
Much of my interest will be focused on Mike Catt at inside centre, together with what happens on the goal-kicking front. It is asking a lot of a 35-year-old man to go from week to week in the heat of a World Cup. Six days separate today's game from the meeting with South Africa and when time is short, a player's ability to "back up" is sorely tested. Even if Barkley gets through today's match in one piece, Mike will have plenty on his plate. Should Olly take a knock, Mike will have to shift to outside-half, with Andy Farrell doing the kicking for the first time in his international union career.
American opener has real value
England's focus has to be on the Americans, although the coaches will have half an eye on the next match. It's about striking the right balance between doing a ruthlessly professional job on the US while using the fixture as a preparatory exercise for South Africa. There is real value in this game for England. It is an opportunity to find some rhythm, to get the intensity up, to hone the scrum and line-out routines, to work on the speed and timing of the defensive line. If England can do all this while getting the scoreboard moving early and then using the bench players, it will be 80 minutes well spent.
The holders will win, probably very comfortably, but I can see the Americans being well organised and testing England at the set piece. They'll be fit, they'll hit hard and they'll have some pace about them. There is no real depth to their knowledge about top-level union, however. Their contact skills, their kicking game ... naivety in these areas will cost them. The acid test will come when they go points down. If they hold themselves together and come off the field with heads high, they could give Tonga a real battle in Montpellier next Wednesday. For the Americans, that game is the World Cup.
Irish hopes threatened by terrible draw
England and Wales have the best draws in this World Cup. Ireland and Scotland, on the other hand, have absolute shockers. It is not the quality of opposition that concerns them so much as the schedule. Ireland have two straightforward games, against Namibia and Georgia, before playing France and Argentina. Scotland go in against Portugal and Romania before meeting the All Blacks and Italy. The programme means these countries would have to play five huge matches back-to-back to win the title. To my mind, it cannot be done.
Quite honestly, I don't believe Scotland seriously believe they can reach the final, irrespective of the draw. Their major issue is the New Zealand game at Murrayfield on 23 September, six days before the meeting with Italy. Will Frank Hadden, their coach, field a second-string team while ensuring that his senior side are well-rested for the Azzurri? He must be sorely tempted.
Ireland, by contrast, have designs on making it through to the last four – maybe even further. But no team has faced a fixture list like this one. Five massive games on the bounce, in a tournament as competitive as this, is too much to ask. There seems to have been precious little understanding of the realities of rugby union on the part of the fixture planners. If Ireland reach the final, it will be the greatest performance by any team in the history of the international game.
Samoans will prove a handful
The game of the weekend? I've been relishing the thought of tomorrow's South Africa-Samoa match at Parc des Princes for a while. We know about the Springboks, but how much do we know about the Samoans? We know this much: if they find a way of winning a decent amount of ball, they'll be a danger. They have such pace and power in their back division that their attacking game ranks with the best.
Can they cut it up front? We shall see. They've had their injuries in the tight five, recently – I know Michael Jones, their coach, was particularly disappointed to lose the lock, Filipo Levi, to a fractured eye socket. But something tells me they'll be a handful all the same.
Player to Watch: Tom Rees
England have been looking for a long-term replacement for Neil Back since the 2003 World Cup: Rees shows every sign of fitting the bill. As a natural open-side flanker, he'll play off the back of the line-out and let Joe Worsley and Lawrence Dallaglio supplement the two ball-winners in the second row. I want to see him get on the backs' shoulders early, run some intelligent lines and offer himself as a passing option. He also has to be an effective ball-winner on the floor. This is a significant test for Rees.Reuse content