English rugby folk have become horribly familiar with the frustrations of international sport in the four years since Martin Johnson broke the habit of a lifetime and smiled while propelling the Webb Ellis Trophy into the Sydney night air, yet there remains something disconcerting about a coach of Brian Ashton's stature suggesting that his side might "cause all sorts of problems for all sorts of teams" over the coming weeks of the sixth World Cup. England are the reigning champions, dammit. It is for other teams to cause them problems.
Ashton's comment had its logic, even so. The holders are not in good shape, as they demonstrated in Marseilles only last month, and only fools shout the odds when they know they are off the pace – fools and punch-drunk boxers. Furthermore, it rather suits the coach to dampen whatever expectations are still harboured by those who have followed England through thin and thinner since the autumn of 2003. If he carries on in this vein, victory over Tonga in the last of the pool matches will have people hanging out the bunting.
On Thursday, the red rose fraternity visited the First World War battlefields of northern France and paid their respects to the fallen. "That sort of trip puts things in perspective," Ashton said. "People often talk about players going into battle on the rugby field, which is patently ridiculous when set against a memorial with 72,000 names on it – names of people whose bodies weren't even found."
This was the most the coach had to say about anything on the eve of today's match with the United States in Lens. He talked a little about concentrating on the job in hand in the face of the unprecedented frenzy surrounding the competition, but admitted: "We can't play it down completely, because this is the biggest tournament in world rugby and we all feel privileged to be involved in it." As for the rest – things like Jonny Wilkinson's ankle and the goal-kicking crisis – he was about as forthcoming as a Trappist in a library.
What was the latest on Wilkinson's sprained ligaments, which some orthopaedic specialists believe will render him hors de combat for six weeks? "He's being assessed again next Tuesday." What about the speculation that the ligaments might be torn, not sprained? "I've seen no speculation." Has Andy Farrell been practising his kicking more than usual? "I think so." Has contact been made with possible replacements, such as Toby Flood (who should have been picked in the first place) or Charlie Hodgson? "I've made no contact with anyone about being on standby." Whoever taught Ashton the art of public speaking, it wasn't Martin Luther King.
Ashton could have been just a little jollier, for his team will surely make a mess of their opponents this evening. The United States have not exactly stunned the rugby-playing world with their warm-up performances – a defeat by Munster's second-string told a significant tale – and while the best of their players, the midfielders Mike Hercus and Paul Emerick, know a thing or two about the game, there are too many home-based amateurs in the mix to suggest anything other than a one-sided romp.
"I'm looking for a lot more accuracy than we've shown in recent matches," Ashton said, warming to a theme at last. "If we deliver that and get through the game with no injuries, we'll be pretty satisfied."
A scoreboard target, perhaps? After all, the quarter-final placings could be decided on points difference. "If you start thinking about racking up a certain number of points, you're in dangerous territory," he replied. "The important thing is to get the key processes right. Do that, and the rest will follow."
While the Americans believe they have made a steep improvement in their scrummaging, they have no one capable of handling the unusually substantial England front row of Andrew Sheridan, Mark Regan and Phil Vickery. They are sufficiently athletic to muck the champions around at the line-out, however, and if they pinch some ball, Ashton will be very unhappy indeed. England were desperate in this area in Marseilles, and as a result, the Bath lock Steve Borthwick lost his place in the first-choice combination.
The responsibility for the running of the line-out now passes to Ben Kay of Leicester, who performed the role with considerable success four years ago. The coach needs something similar from him here.
Away from the thud and blunder, the England back division should have too much firepower for the Americans. Yes, even this England back division, starved of tries as it is. Olly Barkley, in at outside-half for the stricken Wilkinson, has rarely underperformed in an international shirt, and if he can build on the progress he made during the long summer training camp, the likes of Josh Lewsey, Mark Cueto and the ever-dangerous Jason Robinson should benefit.
"We want to get on with it, pure and simple," said Vickery, the captain, yesterday. "The training has dragged on and on, to the point where we're all desperate to play a proper match. The game against the Springboks is looming, and if we can do well in that one, people will suddenly start talking about us." And this game, against the Americans? "They're a proud sporting nation with players who will be physically and emotionally charged for the occasion, but we should beat them, convincingly."
At last! A statement of intent, pure and unalloyed. Four years ago, England went into their opening match against Georgia without a fit scrum-half to their name and still won 84-6, thereby setting themselves up perfectly for a rumble with the South Africans.
The balance of power has shifted somewhat since the exhilarating days of '03, but a nice 60-pointer here will set the Boks thinking ahead of their own hazardous appointment with Samoa tomorrow.Reuse content