England have better things to worry about than the strange case of Jonny Wilkinson and his balls during the hopelessly one-sided match with Romania last weekend, even though World Cup officials are still chewing the cud on the subject. International Rugby Board insiders say there is precious little prospect of disciplinary proceedings being launched as a result of the great marksman's picking and choosing of the ball ahead of his conversion attempts, even though the law dictates that a kicker should always use the one with which the try was scored, unless it is defective. Yes, Wilkinson was in the wrong; no, England will not be flying home early as a result of this little squabble.
Not even those most familiar with the precise chain of events can agree on whether Wilkinson sought to use a particular numbered ball or sought to avoid it, and there was very little light shed on the matter by those England coaches who had been on touch-line duty in Dunedin. The moment the matter was raised in the team hotel yesterday, two of them made their excuses and left, at Usain Bolt pace. Truly, World Cup paranoia is beginning to creep in.
It is not likely to creep out again until England are safely in the quarter-finals, for as things stand, there is no guarantee they will make it that far. Argentina's narrow win over the Scots in Wellington at the weekend was the worst possible result from the red-rose perspective, for it gave the Pumas the easiest route to qualification – a bonus-point victory over Georgia in Palmerston North on Sunday will be enough – and left Andy Robinson's team knowing that their tournament future depends on victory over their nearest and dearest at Eden Park on Saturday.
Should both Argentina and Scotland win without a bonus, England fail to take anything from this weekend's game and the teams end up tied with three wins apiece, the split will be made on old-fashioned points difference. Martin Johnson's men are miles ahead on that score, so in blunt terms, they need to finish within seven of the Scots. Such an outcome will inevitably raise questions about the fairness of using enclosed stadiums for some matches and not others. England have played all their rugby to date at the new Otago Stadium, an indoor arena offering perfect handling and kicking conditions. Scotland? They took on Georgia on a filthy night in Invercargill, and encountered the Pumas in the very wettest, wildest weather Wellington could muster. A level playing field? There are fields in the Hindu Kush more level than this one.
Right from the moment the pool draw was made, this group stood out as both the easiest one to win and the easiest to mess up. This was not lost on James Haskell, the in-form No 8, when he analysed the situation yesterday. "I grew up watching England teams missing out on Grand Slams because of the Scots, who have a great history in this fixture," he said. "They have a World Cup-winning coach in Andy Robinson, they have never failed to make the quarter-final stage at this tournament ... it all adds up. This is a do-or-die game for them.
"But then, it's do-or-die for us too. Personally, I've felt that about every game: this is a World Cup and everything is a fight for life. I'm very aware that in a tournament like this – and you may get to play in only one of them – it is very easy to find yourself standing at the airport with a boarding pass, awaiting the flight home. We know Scotland will be approaching this match as if it is their last and we'll have to put everything on the line. We showed good progress against Romania, but if ever there was a time to really raise the bar against a Scotland side backed into a corner, this is it."
Haskell singled out John Barclay, the 24-carat open-side bandit from Glasgow, as a man worthy of England's special attention. Barclay has had his moments with referees during this competition, but ball-winning flankers who tread as fine a line as he does will always have decisions go against them here and there. If Johnson and his two specialist forwards coaches, John Wells and Graham Rowntree, spend a lot of time talking about him this week, it will be for the very good reason that they do not have a groundhog No 7 of their own to set against him.
"It will be about getting things absolutely right at the tackle area," Haskell said, "primarily the initial clear-out. The first and second men will have to do a good job in getting the scavengers out of the way. If they do that, things will be a lot easier." He did not need to add how difficult it might become if those first and second men do a bad job.
If there is an ever greater threat than Barclay, it is Robinson himself. The coach built the England pack that prevailed in the 2003 World Cup, then succeeded Clive Woodward as red-rose coach in 2004 before being sacked a little over two years later. Renowned throughout the international coaching community as a superb forwards strategist, he has a greater understanding of the England culture, the team's modus operandi, than any other tactician at this tournament.
"Andy has been a great coach for a long, long time," Haskell acknowledged, "and this is always a massive fixture for him. He'll be analysing everything we're doing. But it's not really a matter of us doing things that might surprise him. It's about execution, about doing what we do well. If our initial plays are right, the opposition will find it difficult to play against us. If things are a little bit off, that's when we make it difficult for ourselves.
"I think our attitude is good: people say we're not as passionate about our rugby as the Pumas, say, but we're very determined. It's always difficult to gauge attitude on the Monday of a Test week: you don't tend to form an idea of how the preparations are going until after the first couple of training sessions. But I would say that we are very positive. You don't want to be flying out of this tournament still wishing you were a part of it."Reuse content