England know they must find a new gear to beat misfiring France
Tom Palmer calls on Johnson's side to find form that led to warm-up win in Dublin
Mark Cueto openly confessed yesterday that he "spat the dummy" when Martin Johnson, the England manager, omitted him from the starting line-up – and, indeed, the entire match-day squad – for last weekend's decisive pool game with Scotland. "Usually, no news is good news," the Sale wing said, "so when Martin stopped me on the way to the team room and asked for a word, I immediately wondered what was up. I knew I was fit and I'd scored a hat-trick of tries in the previous match. When he told me I wouldn't be playing ... yes, I suppose there was some sulking involved."
Happily, Cueto's sulks tend to be over and done with in the time it takes him to put three scores past a team of makeweights – 11 minutes, on the most recent available evidence, drawn from the mismatch victory over Romania in Dunedin 10 days ago. Even more happily from the player's perspective, there will be no question of him sitting out the game on the immediate horizon: the quarter-final with weird, wonderful, wholly discombobulated but supremely dangerous France this coming Saturday. His rival for the position, Delon Armitage of London Irish, picked up a one-match ban yesterday – his third suspension of the calendar year – after admitting hitting Chris Paterson, the Scotland full-back, with an illegal "look, no arms" tackle during the closing stages of the contest at Eden Park.
Leaving aside Dan Carter's wrecked adductor longus – as a common talking point, this sliver of groin muscle is the New Zealand equivalent of David Beckham's metatarsal, or, perhaps more accurately in terms of local historical resonance, the head of King Charles I – the All Black nation is most interested in the goings-on amongst Les Bleus: the apparent split between Marc Lièvremont and his players, who could not even bring themselves to share a beer with their coach after the unforeseeable defeat by Tonga at the weekend. But Cueto's words, allied to those of Toby Flood in the hours leading into the Scotland game, proved that tension is alive and kicking in the England party too.
Cueto told the management – indeed, he insisted to them – that he had fully recovered from the back problems that had delayed his entry into this tournament and was in perfect match trim. "Unfortunately, the coaches weren't convinced," he said. "They thought I was lacking a little edge, that I was a game away from being where I needed to be. We talked about it for five or 10 minutes and there was a bit of me that thought: 'Dropped? After a hat-trick? God, where am I?' But there was a team meeting a short while later and then we trained for an hour and a half. Of course, you're bitterly disappointed when these things happen, but in a tournament like this you quickly remind yourself that it's completely about the group."
Rather like Tom Palmer, the thoughtful and articulate England lock who also spent time chewing the fat yesterday, Cueto is an honest, up-front sort – one of the good guys, definitely. Fifty-four caps and one World Cup final into his international career, he has no use for, or patience with, all the flim-flam and flummery that, increasingly in this professional age, passes for rugby discourse between the people who play and the great unwashed.
He acknowledged that England's tempo thus far has been slow: far slower, indeed, than that of at least five of their fellow quarter-finalists – the three major southern hemisphere contenders, plus Ireland and Wales. (Much of Argentina's rugby has been played at an English pace. France? Their tempo is as mysterious as every other part of their game).
"At certain points over the last 12 months we've shown we can play at pace," Cueto argued, "and I think there were times during the pool stage when we picked up the pace while never quite managing to do it consistently. It's important to point out that we're four from four so far, and I'd far rather be in our position than be flying home having played some high-tempo rugby and been knocked out. But yes, there's an appreciation amongst the players of the need to up our game a lot now we've reached the last eight. It's certainly a big discussion point at the moment."
Interestingly, Palmer said something similar. Indeed, he went further. "In my opinion, the team's best performance recently was in Dublin in August, when we beat Ireland in the final warm-up match," he said. "That match proved we can play with high intensity at a high tempo and we need to find a way of reproducing that. Of course, the key decision-makers have to judge a game as it unfolds: there might be times when you need to slow things down, not speed them up. But the balance of the refereeing in this tournament is towards the attacking side, so it's not always possible to do it."
Palmer has a decent understanding of the French rugby psyche: he has played club rugby in Paris with Stade Français for the past couple of seasons, counts two members of the current Tricolore squad – the hooker Dimitri Szarzewski and his fellow lock Pascal Papé – as personal friends and he has made every effort to learn the language (not always a given amongst foreign imports). But like any English forward armed with what Les Bleus would call the "rosbif" mentality, there are certain things he simply does not grasp.
"There have been times at Stade Francais when the players haven't been mentally strong as a group – when people have folded quickly, have shown signs of not giving their all," he admitted. "That's difficult to take on board. But this week, I'm happy to buy into the old cliché about animals being most dangerous when they're wounded. I suspect that in spite of everything going on in their squad, they'll be highly committed. They'll be thinking that even though they've lost two pool games, they've been given another chance – that they're one performance away from a World Cup semi-final.
"I don't think for a second that they can be underestimated. The way I look at it, any player would be foolish to go into a knock-out match with the slightest feeling of complacency. We should expect nothing less than the fight of our lives."
Johnson and his back-room staff will have a clearer idea today of what, if anything, they can expect from Jonny Wilkinson this weekend. The World Cup-winning outside-half failed to go the distance against Scotland after hurting his right arm in a tackle. A hospital scan revealed no obvious muscular damage, but as of of yesterday, no-one in the red rose camp could say whether he would be fit to negotiate a full training session before the end of the week.
Mike Tindall, the centre, is also under treatment, having picked up a leg injury against the Scots. If Wilkinson is ruled out, Toby Flood will certainly start at No 10 against the French. Should Tindall be ruled out as well, there will be a recall for the much-criticised, little-used midfielder Shontayne Hape.
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