England try to hatch plan for unknown States

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The Independent Online

England have three computer programmes full of match footage from recent games involving the United States, their opponents in tomorrow's opening Pool A match in Lens. It may be enough to help the ailing world champions familiarise themselves with the rank outsiders. There again, it may not. When Peter Thorburn, the crafty New Zealander who coaches the Americans, named his line-up at the team base in Lille yesterday, it was not exactly a parade of rugby's rich and famous.

The holders will know plenty about Mike Hercus, the captain, who played professional rugby at both Sale and Llanelli Scarlets. Hercus is a useful goal-kicker – had he been a touch more useful, he might have booted his country to a famous victory over Fiji in the last World Cup – as well as a clever footballer. They will also recognise Luke Gross. Most people do. At 6ft 8in and 18st 6lb, the much-travelled lock from Indiana is among the bigger specimens in the tournament.

And the rest? Um. Takudzwa Ngwenya and Salesi Sika – not obviously names that suggest direct links with the Founding Fathers – will be on the wings, while an open-side flanker called Todd Clever is in the back row. You can already hear Lawrence Dallaglio muttering something along the lines of: "Not too bloody clever, I trust."

While the English players were doing their best to come to terms with Jonny Wilkinson's latest injury trauma – "You expect and accept injury as part of the game, and when people go down, there's someone there to replace them, like Olly Barkley," said the full-back Mark Cueto, referring to the Bath outside-half who will take Wilkinson's place tomorrow – Hercus was also considering the implications of the goal-kicker's withdrawal from the fray.

"I am more concerned about the English pack than I was about Jonny," he said. "They're the ones who help him do what he does so well, so the first priority was, and remains, stopping the immediate threat. Barkley is a good player. I've faced him a couple of times and he's creative, an advocate of running rugby. If we give him space, he has the potential to blow the game open."

Back in the suburbs of Paris, a player who made it his business to blow the whole sport open, the great All Black flanker Michael Jones, offered a few thoughts on Samoan ambitions in this tournament. Jones has been coaching the islanders, who play England in the third round of pool matches, for some years, and while he has suffered for his current sporting art far more frequently than he suffered for his previous one, he was worryingly upbeat about the team's chances of reaching the last eight for the first time since 1995.

"Our mission, our vision, is to make the semi-finals," he said. "We've done the quarter-final thing before. We have a lot of belief and a lot of faith, and we're fast improvers. We've flourished in the last three weeks. It's the longest period of time we've ever been together. Three weeks together for this team is like gold.

"If we can play to our potential, anything is possible. We can do what the world sees as impossible. If everything goes our way for 80 minutes, then we do believe we are capable. People might think we're a little crazy, but we don't want to aim too low. If we aim for the moon at least we will end up in the stars."

Samoa open their account against South Africa in this city on Sunday. The Springboks are taking the game extremely seriously – yesterday, their coach Jake White named something looking suspiciously like his strongest starting combination – but in Jones's eyes, the result is far from a foregone conclusion.

"We don't see giants, we see opportunities," he continued. "We played South Africa last year, for the first time in a long time, in Johannesburg. We showed we could foot it with them. We're not overwhelmed by them. We have huge admiration and respect for them, but we can't afford to pace ourselves.I think we're in the hardest pool and we'd rather seal our fate in the first game than wait for the third one against England."

Another of England's island opponents, Tonga, suffered some alarming moments yesterday when two of their most experienced players, the former Newport Gwent Dragons full-back Sione Tu'ipulotu and the Toulouse flanker Finau Maka, failed to train in Clapiers. However, they were not thought to be serious doubts for their country's opening match with the USA in Montpellier on Wednesday.

USA (v England, Lens, tomorrow): C Wyle, S Sika, P Emerick, V Esikia, T Ngwenya; M Hercus (c), C Erskine; M MacDonald, O Lentz, C Osentowski, L Gross,M Mangan, L Stanfill, T Clever, H Bloomfield. Replacements: B Burdette, M Moeakiola, A Parker, I Basauri, M Petri, V Malifa, A Tuipulotu

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