Ben Foden took a kick in what might be called the "meat and two veg" department during the troublesome tussle with Georgia four days ago, but when the full-back appeared in public yesterday he seemed the picture of serenity – partly, perhaps, because his celebrity girlfriend Una Healy, who sings with The Saturdays, has already fallen pregnant, but most obviously because he believes he will be fit for this weekend's penultimate pool match with Romania. "It's not often I limp off the field at the end of a game but there was a fair bit of physical contact out there with the Georgians," he said, adding that while the damage was not of Wayne Shelford proportions, he was "definitely black and blue".
Shelford, the fearsome New Zealand No 8 who won a World Cup winner's medal at the inaugural tournament in 1987, famously suffered an eye-watering injury during a frank and forthright encounter with France – known thereafter as the "Battle of Nantes" – when a stray boot at a ruck left him with a displaced testicle. Having already lost four teeth into the bargain, he might have been forgiven for calling it quits there and then. Instead, he demanded that his scrotum be stitched up so he could return to the fray. He then copped a fearful smack to the head and was led from the pitch with concussion. And a good day was had by all...
Had Foden taken anything resembling that level of punishment, he would have been packed off home without further ado. As it is, he remains in the red-rose mix as Martin Johnson's first-choice full-back, although an upturn in form would be welcome. Foden has been struggling to locate the best of himself for weeks now, and with Delon Armitage looking the most predatory of England's back-three specialists, he does not have the luxury of being able to afford another ho-hum performance.
The same might be said for the team as a whole, as the 26-year-old Northampton player conceded. "The best way to look at the Georgia performance is as a lesson learned," he said. "We have a structure in place, built around the idea that if we can keep the ball through four or five phases, defenders will tire and holes will appear. Unfortunately, we're forcing things by trying to push an off-load from every half-break we make, even if we're 70 yards out. We have to cut down on the number of stupid passes out of the tackle.
"We're good enough players to know when things are on and when they aren't, but we're too loose at the moment. We want to play with freedom and we have that licence from Brian Smith [the attack coach], but we need to maintain our structure at the same time. Let's do the simple things well and reduce the number of penalties we're conceding. We have to recognise that when referees are looking hard at us, we need to be whiter than white."
Foden was not the first England man to bang this drum: Toby Flood and Jonny Wilkinson, the two men engaged in a contest for the outside-half position that appears to be going Wilkinson's way, could be heard saying much the same things earlier in the week. But talk is cheap. Someone, somewhere has to start setting the improvements in train – to start walking the walk, as players the world over like to put it.
"From here on in, the pressure is only going to increase," acknowledged the full-back. "None of us want to leave New Zealand thinking 'if only' – I for one want to remember this tournament for the right reasons for the rest of my career – so it's important for us to understand that we won't cut it playing as we did last weekend. But we also have to remember that we scored six tries and left another four or five on the field."
With Zara Phillips due in town by the end of the week, the subject of Mike Tindall inevitably cropped up. Foden's bat was straighter than Alastair Cook's at this juncture: "I'm sure Mike will answer his critics in the way he usually does," he said of the long-serving centre, whose après-rugby behaviour in Queenstown recently has been analysed by all and sundry. "It's a personal matter that he's sorting out. He hasn't let it affect him in training."
There was, however, an interesting sidelight shone on the matter by Simon Shaw, the veteran lock forward who would, but for injury, have been playing World Cup rugby more than a decade and a half ago. "Mobile phones with cameras, all the attention, people trying to make a story, make a buck... it's sad," he said in answer to questions about the "footballisation" of the union game. "I hope we're not going down the football road, but I think we probably are. The thing I've always loved about rugby is the close contact between the players and the public. Will it be detrimental to the game if we lose that? Absolutely."
Intriguingly, Shaw did not buy the theory that England's cause would be better served by facing tougher opposition this weekend than a Romanian side standing 18th in the official Test rankings, down a place from their position at the start of the tournament. (England are currently rated fourth, marginally ahead of France.)
"I think this is the perfect game for us," argued Shaw. "They'll be tough up front in the same way the Georgians were, but there'll be scoring opportunities for us if we're patient. That will be the important part, the test of patience. The really hard first-up game against Argentina wasn't a bad thing, and I look on this in the same way. It's the right match at the right time."Reuse content