As World Cup dawns Johnson and England can feel the tension

New Zealand kick off global party today while red rose coach gambles on winger Armitage for tomorrow's opener
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England have spent the last three and a half years preparing specifically for this World Cup, so another 24 hours of waiting will not make a fat lot of difference to Martin Johnson and his players. Better to leave the opening-night business to the New Zealanders, the hosts and marginal favourites, who have almost a quarter of a century of tournament failure gnawing away at them in mind, body and spirit, and would very much like to get on with finding some closure.

As the All Blacks were making final preparations for today's combustible contest with Tonga, who will not be short of support from their own kind given the size of the ex-pat community in the parts of Auckland rarely portrayed in the "city of sails" travel brochures, Johnson was confirming the outcomes of three closely fought positional battles that made his selectorial deliberations for tomorrow's meeting with Argentina a little less straightforward than they might have been.

Steve Thompson, who operated alongside Johnson in the tight-five department of the red-rose scrum when England won the Webb Ellis Trophy in Australia eight years ago, plays at hooker ahead of the younger but smaller Dylan Hartley, who must certainly be asking himself what he did wrong and is just as surely failing to answer his own question. In a similarly intense front-row scrap for the tight-head prop's jersey, Dan Cole beat the rejuvenated Matt Stevens to the starting role. Again, it was an either-or.

If most of the attention was focused on the third decision, it had much to do with Delon Armitage's recent disciplinary record, which is of the "long as your arm" variety. He replaces the injured Mark Cueto, whose back spasms are either nothing much to worry about or of serious concern, depending on which member of the management team is discussing the issue at any given moment. There is little doubt that recent form justifies Johnson's decision to pick the rapier-like London Irish player ahead of the blunt instrument that is Matt Banahan, but if the South Americans succeed in raising the temperature of tomorrow's contest, will he break the habit of a lifetime by keeping his cool?

"It's going to be fraught and there will be some tension out there, so we need to be smart," Johnson said by way of a response to that inquiry. "Argentina thrive on field position and on kicking their goals, so we won't be able to go round conceding penalties. We gave away a couple of dumb ones in Dublin the last time we played, but this is World Cup rugby now and we simply can't have it.

"Delon? Once we decided Mark wasn't quite where he needed to be, I was more than happy to go with him. He's played very well recently, he's put his hand up. Last season was what it was for him, but we've always seen him as a Test performer. Yes, I'd have been happy to go with Banahan, and we could have picked Manu Tuilagi on the wing and been comfortable with it. That's where we are with this squad, I think. There's no great drop-off in quality between different players chasing the same position."

The Cueto business grows ever more mysterious. Johnson insisted that his most experienced wing, a veteran of the last World Cup final in Paris, had trained fully all week and could have played at a push. This version of events was borne out by the fact that when the players were given time to themselves on Wednesday, the Sale player hit the golf course – not an obvious destination for one with spasms in the spinal region. Yet others familiar with the issue insisted Cueto was nowhere near as fit as the management say and might not be ready for the game with Georgia in Invercargill on Sunday week. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice famously said.

There is nothing more curious in the whole of international sport than New Zealand's inability to carry their dominance of Test rugby in the years separating World Cups into the seven weeks or so when the title is there to be won. Their sole victory, on home soil in the inaugural 1987 competition, has not quite been forgotten – some of the rugby played by the great back row of Alan Whetton, Michael Jones and Wayne Shelford will live forever in the memory – but the six misfires since dominate the thinking in these parts.

"We'd be mugs if we hadn't learned in the four years since the last tournament," said Richie McCaw, the All Black captain, yesterday. But have they learned enough about the art of winning when it matters most? It is going to be a whole lot of fun finding out.