Just as Martin Johnson and his colleagues in the England hierarchy were weighing up Andrew Sheridan's chances of recovering from neck trouble in time for this weekend's tussle with the world champions of South Africa, while simultaneously grappling with the rather larger problem of the demise of the red rose scrummage, the Springboks were having a few problems of their own – some of them of the common or garden orthopaedic variety, others significantly more complex and, quite possibly, beyond immediate repair.
"Fatigue is taking its toll on our players," admitted Peter de Villiers, the coach, who must be just a little tired himself, given the depressing amount of politics – racial politics, sporting politics, personality politics – with which he has had no choice but to concern himself since becoming the first black coach of his country's national team. "Sometimes, it's very difficult to motivate yourself – to just go on and on and on. These guys play round the clock against all these big rugby nations. Physically, they train to deal with it, but there is a mental fatigue that nobody sees.
"Speaking from the players' point of view, I'm so glad the year is done. They're thinking: 'Five days more, and I can go back to my family.' I just hope they can uplift themselves a little this weekend and play at the level we expect of them."
The Boks have recorded narrow victories over Wales and Scotland over the last 10 days, but their rugby has been far from spectacular. Certainly, they have not revisited the heights of their World Cup triumph in France a year ago, or the ground-breaking victory over the All Blacks in Dunedin during the summer. Now, with the front-row forwards Bismarck du Plessis and Guthro Steenkamp joining the influential scrum-half Fourie du Preez on the "no can do" list for this Saturday's visit to Twickenham, they look very vulnerable indeed.
Both Du Plessis and Steenkamp were hurt during last weekend's contest at Murrayfield. "It was a battleground out there and we picked up a lot of injuries," acknowledged Craig Roberts, the hard-pressed team doctor. "Bismarck overstretched his hamstring" – never a good idea for a hooker – "and has a grade two strain. Guthro twisted his ankle in a tackle and has a nasty sprain." Roberts said two more players, the stellar wing Bryan Habana and the Zimbabwean-born prop Brian Mujati, had also suffered knocks, but were expected to be fit for Twickenham. England's backroom staff tend to be less forthcoming on the subject of injuries; indeed, they seem to be under the peculiar impression that information regarding Sheridan's bull neck or Danny Cipriani's finely-turned ankle comes under the Official Secrets Act. Both players had their fitness issues during the heavy defeat by Australia on Saturday and neither went the distance. Seventy-two hours on, there was not so much as a peep from the red rose camp concerning their condition.
Over the last fortnight, Johnson has named his starting Test team to the players within 24 hours of the squad convening at their plush country hotel base in Surrey, but he was expected to delay his announcement for the third match of his managerial tenure until this morning. Changes are in the air, with all three rows of the scrum being assessed following the poor set-piece effort against the Wallabies. Johnson has to be accurate in his selection for this match, because Argentina slipped ahead of England in the international rankings by beating Italy in Turin and now hold the important fourth seeding spot ahead of the 2011 World Cup draw, which takes place in London on 1 December.
Argentina play Ireland this weekend. Should they win, and England lose, the latter could find themselves sharing a pool with New Zealand, in New Zealand, in three years' time, which amounts to a fate worse than death. The Irish also have their concerns on the rankings front, for defeat against the Pumas would leave them in ninth spot, contemplating a draw that could conceivably see them lumbered with South Africa and France.
"Important ranking points are on offer in this game and we're under pressure," admitted Alan Quinlan, the Ireland flanker, who played in Saturday night's disappointing defeat by the All Blacks at Croke Park. "We're a better side than we showed against New Zealand. We're frustrated because we didn't play well and didn't hurt them. We have to bounce back."
Shortly after the Munster back-rower offered these thoughts, he discovered he had been cited for an alleged stamp on a New Zealand player and would be dragged before a disciplinary tribunal later this week. Tony Woodcock, the All Blacks prop, was also the subject of a formal accusation – this one for punching – from Peter Larter, the citing officer.Reuse content