Josh Lewsey did as much as anyone to drag England kicking and screaming into a second successive World Cup final – not simply by scoring the only try of the last-four tie with France on Saturday night, but by playing every last second of the preceding five matches. He will not play any more. The Wasps wing is out of this weekend's decisive meeting with South Africa after injuring his right hamstring against the hosts.
The medical team diagnosed a "grade-one strain", while Lewsey himself described it as a "grade-two tear". Either way, it is a heartbreaker.
"I'm devastated, as you'd expect," he said yesterday. "It's cruel, but that's what sport does to you, even though you sacrifice a lot to put it first in your life. You set yourself goals, and sometimes those goals aren't achieved through no fault of your own. To create an opportunity and then have that opportunity taken from you... it's hard to take.
"But the beauty of a team game like rugby is that everyone has a role, whether or not they're among those lucky enough to take the field. The eight people in the 30 who won't be involved this weekend have a massively important part to play in keeping the mood positive, so let's not undervalue it. The only thing that matters to me now is that we win the final. I don't care how, and I won't care why, as long as we retain the trophy."
The injury happened towards the end of the first half and appeared to occur when Lewsey was tackled into touch by the French flanker Thierry Dusautoir. However, Lewsey revealed that his hamstring had "gone" before Dusautoir made contact. "I stepped off my right foot, coming on a switch with Jason Robinson, and I felt it give as I put the power through my leg. I hoped it was just a spasm, maybe a touch of cramp, but I think I knew I was in trouble. The hospital scan was very clear. I won't be playing for between three and five weeks."
Brian Ashton, the head coach, is not bereft of options, but he must tread very carefully in identifying a replacement for his most experienced back-three operator – not least because the Springboks have extreme pace on both wings in the contrasting shapes of J P Pietersen, who put two tries past England in the pool match last month, and Bryan Habana, whose brace against Argentina in Sunday's semi-final took him past Drew Mitchell of Australia as the tournament's leading scorer.
His eight tries equal the record set by a certain Jonah Lomu in the 1999 competition.
Ashton could recall Mark Cueto as a like-for-like alternative, but the right wing from Sale has not enjoyed the happiest six weeks of his career. Picked at full-back for the opening match with the United States, he was dropped for the first meeting with the Boks, recalled for the victory over Samoa – he played out of position once again, this time on the left wing – and was then dumped a second time following the win over Tonga. A fully revved-up Cueto would be a major asset to England this weekend, but recent events may not have left him in the most positive frame of mind.
Another option might be to keep faith with Dan Hipkiss, the inexperienced Leicester centre, in midfield – strong and reliable in contact, he did particularly well in his 40-plus minutes against the French – and running Mathew Tait on the left wing, where the Newcastle player finished Saturday's semi-final. Tait is certainly quick enough to perform the role, but against a finisher as clever as Pietersen, the positional switch would not be without its perils.
Needless to say, Lewsey will throw his weight behind whoever is chosen to replace him. "I've no doubt we have the players to win this game," he said. "We're underdogs, certainly, but as the tournament has demonstrated more than once, form can disappear out of the window when a team finds itself in a knock-out situation with people who are prepared to front up for each other.
"This World Cup has been dominated by field position. If we can control the football, we can implement our game plan. As Phil Vickery [the captain] said to us before the quarter-final against the Wallabies: 'Whatever you do, don't regret this day.' On that occasion, we made the country proud of us. We haven't finished yet."
He said he had no regrets over his actions immediately after scoring his early try against Les Bleus, which came as a direct result of an error – or rather, an entire catalogue of errors – by the Biarritz full-back Damien Traille. "There is always some banter and some sledging in a big match, and this one was a pretty emotional affair," said Lewsey, who was seen to pat Traille on the head in a manner that might have been seen as a touch ironic. "I don't want to make anything of it. We're all thick-skinned enough to take the rough with the smooth."
Last night Ashton called up the young Bath full-back Nick Abendanon, who was first capped against South Africa in June. Abendanon travels as a precaution against further injuries in training.Reuse content