England trained at rickety old Carisbrook, known in its heyday as the "House of Pain", on their first afternoon in New Zealand's South Island – an appropriately excruciating choice of venue as far as their captain, Lewis Moody, was concerned. Moody completed the warm-up but did precious little else and will therefore miss this Saturday's opening World Cup match with Argentina at the swanky, new £100m Otago Stadium on the other side of town. It was, to say the very least, an inauspicious start to this most significant of weeks.
Martin Johnson, who played many a game alongside Moody at both club and international level and understands how he ticks, agreed that the flanker's persistent difficulties with his right knee were now the cause of serious frustration. "Lewis is not happy," acknowledged the manager. "His disappointment is understandable, particularly now we're in a World Cup environment, which tends to heighten the emotions. We hoped, as did he, that things would be right for this weekend's game, but he's a bit short.
"We're not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes here: we're not dealing with an exact science. In the end, this is the first game in what we hope will be a long tournament. You can force these things, but there's no reason to do so. It was a pretty straightforward decision to make."
Sadly for Moody, there is nothing straightforward about this particular injury. He first broke down during a game for Bath back in January and was rendered inactive for the entire Six Nations Championship. His comeback at club level was not wholly convincing and while he started the first of the World Cup warm-ups against Wales at Twickenham last month, he did not go close to finishing it. Repeatedly, the medical staff indicated that the captain would regain full fitness sooner rather than later. Now the "later" has arrived, there is still no sign of him extending the nine or so hours of rugby – precious little in a year like this – he has played over the last eight and a half months.
Johnson was unwilling to confirm his choices of substitute leader and fill-in breakaway, but the centre Mike Tindall is the obvious candidate for the first role, especially after performing it with a high degree of success in the victory over Ireland in Dublin 10 days ago, while James Haskell wore the No 7 shirt throughout the Six Nations, a tournament England happened to win for the first time since 2003.
All the same, Johnson would far rather have his captain available than not. Moody may not be everyone's idea of an open-side specialist but in a competition full of expert scavengers – Richie McCaw and David Pocock, Heinrich Brussow, Sam Warburton and John Barclay – he is the Englishman most likely to make a fist of it. Besides, he means a lot to his fellow players, as Chris Ashton pointed out. "We're a tight group and he's still here with us, but it's always a blow to lose a captain like Lewis," the wing said.
Other injuries, most notably the knee hassles affecting the scrum-half Ben Youngs, are said to have cleared up, although Johnson was rather cryptic on the subject. Asked more than once whether every member of the 30-man party bar Moody was available for selection against the South Americans, the manager responded each time not with a simple "yes", but with one of his more nuanced offerings. "Everyone except Lewis trained fully," came the reply, repeatedly.
His questioners might as well have been pressing the 10 principal tournament officials on their plans for handling the all-important tackle area over the next seven weeks, for all the clarity on offer. This, too, is an area of concern for England, given the fact that Paddy O'Brien, the New Zealander who effectively referees the referees on behalf of the International Rugby Board, is meeting his charges this week to remind them of their roles and responsibilities vis-à-vis the most mind-bending parts of rugby's ever-changing and increasingly arcane law book. On the one hand, O'Brien's determination to have everyone whistling from the same hymn sheet is reassuring. On the other, if the refs are not sure of their ground this close to a World Cup...
Johnson craves consistency. "The breakdown is the big thing," he said, "we don't want things being sprung on us now. At this stage, there shouldn't be shocks and there shouldn't be surprises. In fairness, I can see why this meeting is taking place. When adjustments are made to law interpretations, referees tend to be very strong on the new stuff at first before slipping back a little. I think the current balance of interpretation at the tackle area is about right, just as long as we're refereed the same way from game to game."
Alarmingly, Johnson was not even sure whether he and his Argentine counterpart, the former Test flanker Santiago Phelan, would have a chance to talk things through with Saturday's official, Bryce Lawrence of New Zealand, ahead of the contest. "I'm assuming it's the same as any other international week, and that we'll have a chance to meet," the manager said. "As things stand, though, I'm not exactly sure of the protocols."
There are two English referees among the elite: Wayne Barnes, who was in charge the last time New Zealand played – and lost – a World Cup match; and Dave Pearson. Of the two, Barnes appears to have been earmarked for major matches later in the competition. His pool fixtures carry far more weight than those awarded to his countryman, starting with the game between South Africa, the reigning champions, and Wales in Wellington this coming Sunday.
The only other countries to have more than one referee on the panel are Ireland and South Africa. Australia's single representative, Steve Walsh, is a born-and-bred New Zealander with a rich history of controversial behaviour behind him. Walsh moved across the Tasman Sea to make a fresh start after problems with the demon drink threatened to wreck his career.
Cabin fever: air safety the All Black way
Graham Henry dons a pilot's hat and barks his orders from the cockpit of a jumbo jet in tones that would do justice to a Thunderbirds villain; a topless photograph of Jonah Lomu is stowed in the overhead locker; a flight attendant swoons into her seat as Richie McCaw brushes past; her male colleague requests – in vain – a peck on the cheek from Richard Kahui; a woman of extremely advanced years scampers naked down the aisle...
There has never been a safety instruction video quite like the one currently being screened by Air New Zealand. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "All Black camp".Reuse content