When the walls come tumbling down, they make one hell of a mess. Just as Phil Vickery, the England captain, was leaving base camp in Versailles to hear news of a two-week suspension that will prevent him featuring in the World Cup pool matches against South Africa and Samoa, Olly Barkley could be seen heading for the nearest hospital for an emergency scan on a hip injury suffered in training. If the reigning champions were depressed by losing Vickery for the highly charged pool game with the Springboks on Friday night, the prospect of losing Barkley into the bargain was almost too much for flesh and blood to stand.
The Bath outside-half had been the one saving grace in England's leaden-footed victory over the United States in Lens last weekend. More importantly in light of the latest orthopaedic calamity affecting Jonny Wilkinson, he had come through the match in one piece, despite being dumped on his head by the American centre Paul Emerick, who was duly suspended for five weeks and effectively banished from the competition. When Barkley broke down yesterday, it was – irony of ironies – during a non-contact session. Seventy-two hours shy of their most important match in four years, England found themselves without a fit No 10 and with no recognised goal-kicker to their name.
This development overshadowed a number of other noteworthy events, including the dropping of three senior players – Mark Cueto, Joe Worsley, Lawrence Dallaglio – and the citing of the brilliant Springbok flanker Schalk Burger, whose own chances of playing in Saint-Denis on Friday were placed under severe threat. Burger's tackle on the Samoan scrum-half Junior Polu at Parc des Princes last Sunday appeared every bit as grisly as Emerick's assault on Barkley. The South Africans will defend their man to the last breath, but there is a strong possibility that they will lose their most prized performer for the rest of the pool stage.
Brian Ashton, the England coach, insisted that no contact had been made with either of the two obvious candidates to join the squad: Toby Flood of Newcastle and Charlie Hodgson of Sale. "I'll consider the results of the scan before making any decision along those lines," he said. "Wilkinson has been doing some running and kicking for the first time since injuring his ankle last week, so if Olly is declared unfit and Jonny becomes fit, it's a case of problem solved. It may be that we'll be in a position to play Barkley anyway. We simply don't know the extent of the injury or its potential consequences."
Ashton will have to act fast if he decides on a change of personnel, for tournament regulations demand that a new player be on French soil at least 48 hours before he plays a match. Yet it is a delicate situation, as well as an urgent one. For someone to be brought in, someone must be drummed out. The coach is reluctant to lose Barkley for the duration after his fine performance in Lens, and even less keen on waving farewell to Wilkinson.
The alternative would be to scratch an injured individual from another positional area, but there is no available candidate, although the young midfielders Mathew Tait and Dan Hipkiss were both ailing yesterday – Tait with stomach trouble and Hipkiss with a mild dose of tonsillitis.
Might this tournament be turning into Ashton's worst nightmare? "I can think of worse nightmares than coaching the England Test team," he replied. At which point, the scrummaging coach Graham Rowntree chipped in with some thoughts of his own. "I can tell you my worst nightmare, if you like," he said. "It's sitting on the toilet with no clothes on, and realising there is no loo paper." Very Freudian.
Vickery had been named as tight-head prop and captain when Ashton unveiled his side to face the Boks, even though few in the England camp expected him to make the date. They were proved right. Charged with kicking the aforementioned Emerick, who was brought crashing to earth by one of the clumsier football-style hacks witnessed in an international rugby match, he stood little chance of a reprieve, especially as the American was punished so heavily for his own misdemeanour. Ashton and his colleagues will consider an appeal, all the same.
Matt Stevens of Bath, a South African in all but name, will start the game with Perry Freshwater making up the numbers. At least Freshwater has made the bench. Dallaglio, Worsley and Cueto were discarded altogether as a result of the limp display in the opening fixture. "That performance influenced selection to an extent," Ashton conceded, before adding sharply: "When you see a performance like that, you fervently hope you'll never see anything like it again."
Jason Robinson will now play at full-back, despite Ashton's public declaration that the former captain was a left wing and nothing else, with Paul Sackey of Wasps filling the vacancy – a risk in itself, given that he has played the overwhelming majority of his club rugby on the right wing. The decision to switch Sackey from one side of the field to the other sent the clearest of signals to the Boks that his defence is not thought to be up to the task of neutralising the breathtaking Bryan Habana, who put four tries past Samoa at the weekend.
In the remodelled back row, Martin Corry will operate at blind-side flanker, the role he performed so strikingly for the Lions in Australia six years ago, with Nick Easter of Harlequins at No 8. "This is a unit selected specifically for this game, which might be dominated by what happens at the line-out," Ashton explained. "We feel it is important to have a big presence there, and Martin fits the bill."
England will need a big presence everywhere but, as things stand, they do not have a presence of any sort in the most important decision-making position of them all.
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Red Rose Blows: England's World Cup casualties
Mike Tindall (Gloucester, centre)
A member of the victorious 2003 side, he broke his leg in April and ran out of recovery time.
Dan Ward-Smith (Bristol, No 8)
Uncapped, but a serious contender for World Cup duty until he suffered a dislocated kneecap in January.
David Strettle (Harlequins, wing)
One of the brighter sparks in the Six Nations campaign, he broke a metatarsal in pre-tournament training.
Charlie Hodgson (Sale, outside-half)
Damaged knee ligaments on England duty last November and failed to convince the coaches of his fitness.
Jonny Wilkinson (Newcastle, outside-half)
Turned an ankle in training before last weekend's game with the United States and ended up on crutches.
Olly Barkley (Bath, outside-half)
Suffered a hip injury in training yesterday and in danger of missing Friday's confrontation with the Springboks.
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