England have been led a merry dance by more than one nation during this benighted defence of the world title, but did they really need to respond by embracing the Hokey Cokey philosophy of rugby? Andy Farrell, in the side on Wednesday afternoon but out of it yesterday morning, will not face Australia in tomorrow's quarter-final, having picked up a calf strain chasing a kick during training. Judging by the heavy strapping around Olly Barkley's right thigh, there is no guarantee that the man who made way for Farrell will be in a fit state to step back into an ailing midfield. If you listen carefully, you can hear the Wallabies laughing.
It would not be inaccurate to suggest that Farrell's inclusion in this squad confused more people than it enthused, but there was nothing remotely amusing about one of English sport's higher achievers being left to wallow in his own impotence. Those who have trained alongside the former Great Britain rugby league captain have sworn by him, convinced that his leadership qualities and big-game experience would pay dividends sooner or later. The rugby public at large may never discover the truth of the matter. If the champions lose tomorrow and bid adieu to a tournament that was Farrell's raison d'être in union terms, it is inconceivable that he will be selected again.
Enough has been said on the matter. More than enough. The question now concerns the who, not the why. Barkley, praised from the rooftops for his performance against the United States in the opening match of the pool stage, was shifted from outside-half to inside-centre and then dumped, from a considerable height. An obvious candidate for reinstatement, he found himself on the receiving end of Phil Vickery, the very substantial prop and captain, during the same training run that did for Farrell. "I have a dead leg," he reported, miserably.
Brian Ashton, who is playing his cards so close to his chest that he keeps them inside his vest, gave no indication as to his thinking on the subject of the No 12 position – a position so troublesome that it has distorted and undermined England's entire campaign, from the earliest stage of the planning process through to this current and very late stage of non-execution. Barkley would be the marginal favourite to play if fit, but Ashton remains a keen advocate of Mike Catt, who has been playing a "valuable behind-the-scenes role" since failing to make the slightest impression on the Springboks in Saint-Denis three weeks ago. The other contenders are Dan Hipkiss, more used to the outside-centre duties, and Toby Flood, called in as a replacement for the injured Jamie Noon and barely glimpsed since arriving in France.
Jonny Wilkinson, who would have played alongside Farrell tomorrow, was in no mood to waste energy moaning about the latest injury hassles. "It's not an ideal scenario," he acknowledged, "but it underlines the necessity of having a squad with real depth. Andy has brought a solidity and consistency of attitude to the mix, but it's important to be ruthless now. We don't have the time for feelings of disappointment." He then said he expected to get a "heads-up" from Ashton on the identity of his new partner – a clear suggestion that he did not know any more than those listening to him. Alarming? You could say.
By sharp contrast, the Wallabies were a picture of serenity. They picked the side everyone expected them to pick – their decision to drop the tournament's leading try-scorer, Drew Mitchell, for the more prosaic Adam Ashley-Cooper was widely anticipated – and seemed ready for just about anything. Even the most fresh-faced and undercooked Australian in the squad, the new outside-half Berrick Barnes, was imperturbable. "I must be the luckiest bloke in the world, playing in this game surrounded by people like George Gregan, Matt Giteau and Stirling Mortlock," said the 21-year-old country boy from Queensland. "This is one of the most experienced Wallaby teams in history. It's fantastic to be a part of it."
The Australians expect a hard time in the scrums, but even in this department, they believe they'll come up with answers to at least some of the questions posed by Andrew Sheridan and company. Asked if he expected the match official, Alain Rolland, to referee to the letter of the law – and, if he did, what cunning plan he might concoct in an effort to draw the sting from the England set-piece – the forwards coach Michael Foley turned the argument against itself in time-honoured Wallaby fashion. "If he does stick to the rules, it will mean both scrum-halves are on-side at the base of the scrum," he said, cleverly alerting the entire refereeing fraternity to his concerns over the Harlequins scrum-half Andy Gomarsall and the methods of disruption he employed against Tonga a week ago.
Foley's long-time mentor and partner, John Connolly, was rather less subtle in highlighting Wallaby anxieties over the presence of the Bristol hooker Mark Regan in the middle of the England front row. "By picking Regan, they've made a statement of intent," the head coach said. "We've had a word, because we want to make sure he behaves himself. We want this to be a fair and clean game." As opposed to what? "As opposed to the other sort," he replied.Reuse content