Along with the other viruses hanging around the England camp – symptoms include a chronic fear of open spaces and an overwhelming urge to kick the ball rather than pass it – a persistent stomach bug continues to threaten the national team's Six Nations progress. The latest victim, the Sale wing Mark Cueto, could not train yesterday, so the uncapped Chris Ashton of Northampton was called into the party, much to the frustration of his club, who were planning to play the Premiership's leading try-scorer in this weekend's big derby contest with Leicester.
There was no serious suggestion that Cueto might miss the contest with Ireland at Twickenham tomorrow – the likes of Steve Borthwick, Simon Shaw and Toby Flood successfully shook off a similar illness ahead of the game with Italy in Rome 12 days ago – but there was a degree of anxiety in the red-rose camp all the same. Cueto is performing as well as anyone in the side and better than most. Given the potency of the Irish back division, he is among the very last people England need to lose.
Borthwick, ever precise in his analysis, pointed out that Cueto's ailment was not quite the same as the one that had laid him low before Rome. Happily, he spared his audience the full details. What he did not spare them was a characteristically resolute defence of England's rugby over the first two rounds of the tournament, which resulted in a narrow, slightly fortunate victory over Wales, followed by a one-try win over the Azzurri that might yet be bottled and marketed as a cure for insomnia.
"I said after the Italy game there were areas in which we could improve," remarked the captain, roundly mocked by those who took his comments at Stadio Flaminio to mean quite the opposite. "But too often, we play down the good things and look for the negatives. I don't hide from the fact that we need to convert more of our opportunities into tries: you can make all the breaks you want, but they're worth nothing if you don't cross the goal line. There again, I thought we did a lot of things well in Rome. Was I surprised at the reaction? No, it was trademark. I ask you this: what would you write about us if we threw the ball around under our own posts and found ourselves being turned over?"
If Borthwick was determined to defend his team, he was especially keen on showing support for Jonny Wilkinson, who will win his 76th cap at outside-half tomorrow. Increasingly, Wilkinson is being identified as England's chief problem, having spent much of the last decade being lauded as their chief asset. The captain was having none of it.
"Jonny is proudly self-analytical, as everyone knows," he said of the World Cup-winning goal-kicker. "All this criticism from outside... look, he's a player who knows what he's about and understands what he's trying to achieve. I can't praise him highly enough for his contribution to this team: he's been a key leader for us in this week's preparation, as he is every week. The pressure may come on us and the criticism may come on us. We'll stick together."
The last time Stephen Ferris, perhaps the form blind-side operator in world rugby, played in England, in a Heineken Cup match for Ulster against Bath last month, he found himself being stamped on by the former England lock Danny Grewcock, who was promptly sent off for his trouble. The flanker, twice gouged by Stade Français players in an earlier European pool tie before Christmas, expects another hard game tomorrow, if not hard in quite the same way.
"England have a strong back row, there's no doubting it," he commented. "They're good ball carriers and they get around the park pretty well. But if we perform as we have in the past, we should have nothing to worry about." Confident? You could say.
Jerry Flannery, the Munster hooker banned for this game – indeed, for the rest of the competition – after hacking the French wing Alexis Palisson off the field in the last round of matches, will appeal against the length of his suspension in London on Wednesday.Reuse content