England are not quite sure how they arrived in this dangerous place, but they need to get the heck out as fast as their legs can carry them. "We're fighting for our lives," said Martin Johnson, uncomfortable in the knowledge that eight points – eight measly, miserable points – are all that separate him and his team from a premature arrival at Heathrow early on Tuesday morning. "We can't afford to think about the maths: it's not the mindset we need and I don't know why we're talking about it. We need to win the game. If we don't, we'll be on the plane."
The manager must have arrived in New Zealand thinking that victory over Argentina in the opening game – nobody's idea of a formality – and two maximum-yield follow-ups against Georgia and Romania would guarantee his team a place in the knock-out stage of this tournament. Thanks to Lucas Amorosino, the sure-footed Puma wing who scored the South Americans' decisive try against Scotland five days ago, and Chris Paterson, the full-back who fluffed the tackle that would have saved all this fuss and bother, Johnson is not guaranteed anything. If the Scots win at Eden Park tomorrow and deny their nearest and dearest so much as a losing bonus, England will be on the very brink of elimination. In fact, they might as well pack their bags, for the chances of Argentina not registering a five-try full house against the tired Georgians on Sunday are slim indeed.
Johnson produced no magic rabbits in selection: indeed, he did not even bother with a hat. A late rumour that Toby Flood had beaten Jonny Wilkinson to the outside-half spot proved false; Matt Stevens and Courtney Lawes were duly restored to the tight unit at the expense of Alex Corbisiero and Tom Palmer; the occasional wing Delon Armitage was promoted to the starting line-up ahead of Mark Cueto, who must be wondering what the hell and why after putting three tries past Romania last time out. This is the manager's "bring it on" side – a combination for the do-or-die occasion.
"We've always said Delon is a Test-quality player," Johnson said. "For one reason or another he wasn't available to us in the Six Nations, but I told him when he returned to the squad that if he played well and did things right, we'd give him a shot. Mark? He missed two early games through injury and I think he's still a match short of being where he'd like to be. In an ideal world he'd have that game time, but this is not an ideal world. It's a World Cup. We trust Mark completely: he's been a consistent player, maybe our most consistent player, for a long time now and this isn't an easy situation. However, it's the call we've made."
Some other calls are every bit as tough, as Toby Flood, the first-choice No 10 until last month, acknowledged on learning of his failure to unseat Wilkinson for what is effectively the first knock-out match of the campaign. "I can't hide from the fact that I'm disappointed," said the Leicester midfielder. "I'm not the only one: Tom Palmer has a right to be disappointed, Tom Wood has a right, too. Not being in the starting line-up... it doesn't sit well with me, just as it didn't sit well with Jonny during the Six Nations. But sitting in a corner, mumbling under my breath and cursing the coaches won't get me anywhere.
"I think it was always going to be a 50-50 call between us at No 10 and maybe I didn't put my hand up high enough last month, during the warm-up games. I have a job to do now from the bench and I'll have to immerse myself in what's happening on the field because I'll need to feel the tempo of the game the moment I'm called on to play. The good thing is that in this group, no one gives you any fluffy excuses when they don't pick you. You're given the truth, and that's all anyone can ask."
Johnson's opposite number, Andy Robinson, was far less predictable in his selection, making seven changes, one of them positional, to the side that lost to the Pumas. In doing so, he succeeded in wrong-footing his opponents. "This is the side we thought they'd pick against Argentina," Johnson said. "They've gone for a big physical midfield and they'll want to carry the ball against us. They'll try to play a handling game if conditions suit."
By pairing the frank and forthright Sean Lamont with Joe Ansbro, a quick centre with excellent footwork, the Scots have come up with a midfield designed to ask England questions they rarely find themselves answering in these fixtures – games described by Robinson as being "chaotic" by nature. For all that, the likelihood is that this will be as claustrophobic as any Calcutta Cup contest, spiced by the uniqueness of the occasion. Never before has an England-Scotland game been played offshore.
It is not, however, the first time the oldest international rivals in the whole of rugby have met on World Cup business. The 1991 semi-final at Murrayfield was a tryless affair, edged 9-6 by England when Rob Andrew dropped a goal at the last knockings after the ball came to him from his outstanding pack like "a chocolate bar from a slot machine", as dear old Bill McLaren portrayed it.
Would England settle for 9-6 tomorrow? Johnson might pretend otherwise for PR purposes – after all, his side are well above the Scots in the official rankings – but in reality, he'd take that outcome now and not play the game. "Scotland have to win: that makes them potentially threatening and potentially vulnerable, depending on how they react to the pressure," he said. "Equally, it's about how we react too. This is a World Cup and people have to understand what World Cups are about. We're in knock-out rugby now. It's about handling the expectation, the spotlight and ultimately translating it into performance."Reuse content