Jonny Wilkinson, still among the highest-profile players in rugby eight years after dropping the goal that brought the World Cup to England, gave the beleaguered red-rose manager Martin Johnson a welcome dollop of good news yesterday when he negotiated a training session without aggravating the elbow injury he suffered during the victory over Scotland last weekend. Mike Tindall, who would much prefer to keep a low profile just at the moment, did not train at all, however, and there is no guarantee that the much-maligned centre will recover from a dead leg in time for the quarter-final meeting with France at Eden Park in three days' time.
After the frank and forthright encounter with the Scots, the concern over Wilkinson was greater than that over his midfield partner – especially as it was initially feared that the outside-half had suffered another of the shoulder problems that made his life such a misery after the 2003 triumph. However, it subsequently emerged that the issue had nothing to do with his shoulder at all, and that Tindall, who appeared to be trodden on by his back-line colleague Delon Armitage, was the more damaged of the two.
Once again, the former champions found themselves on the disciplinary back foot after confirming that another of their midfielders, the Leicester youngster Manu Tuilagi, had been fined £5,000 for wearing a gumshield bearing a sponsor's logo, in defiance of the stringent regulations on advertising imposed by tournament organisers petrified of upsetting their own blue-chip backers. It was hardly a hanging offence: set against the long list of other English misdemeanours – harassment of a chambermaid in Dunedin, drunken behaviour in Queenstown, suspensions on and off the field – Tuilagi's behaviour might almost have been described as innocent. All the same, it was another thing that needed sorting.
Tuilagi's brother Alesana, who represented the family's native Samoa in this competition, had a similar punishment imposed last week. Given that there are half a dozen rugby-playing siblings, it might be worth the International Rugby Board fining all of them, just for the hell of it. That way, they might offset some of the financial losses they will suffer as a result of holding this World Cup in New Zealand.
Not that Tuilagi the younger seemed particularly miffed yesterday. He was highly impressed by the news that his brother's fine had effectively been paid by Samoan supporters living in New Zealand. "That's awesome," he remarked, before explaining that his own gumshield was an old England Under-18s issue, with a sponsor's brand stamped on it. Having been caught wearing it in the second pool game against Georgia, he used a marker pen to rub out the offending detail before the match with Romania six days later.
A number of players from a variety of countries are thought to have fallen foul of this rule, although the International Rugby Board refuses to confirm the number, claiming that it is up to individual governing bodies to divulge information about such fines as and when they wish. On the basis that nothing stays quiet for long – a fact of rugby life that continues to elude the tournament organisers, despite repeated leaks of information they would rather keep to themselves – it is difficult to understand why they continue in this vein. Next chairman of the IRB? Step forward, King Canute.
And, of course, the players keep on talking. Yesterday it was Shontayne Hape's turn among the England squad to play down the off-pitch controversies that have dogged them. At least Hape had the sense of perspective, absent among certain of his fellow squad members, to admit that "a couple of the guys have let the squad down", before adding that "it's not like anyone killed anyone. We want to focus on rugby now."
Focusing on rugby, England, who name their side for the quarter-final tomorrow, restricted themselves to light training yesterday. Conversely, the French went full tilt, at the request of the players themselves, who, according to the loose forward Imanol Harinordoquy, were keen to rid themselves of the lingering anger and frustration arising from the shock defeat by Tonga in Wellington last weekend. "There might be some collisions and some stitches, but that won't be a bad thing," the Biarritz player said. "We need to release some feelings inside us."
Marc Lièvremont, the head coach, has retained faith in the body of the side that went apex-over-base at the weekend: even Aurélien Rougerie, the centre, has been named, despite the fact he is struggling with a shoulder injury and will have to pass a fitness test on Friday if he is to take his place in the team. If the Clermont Auvergne midfielder is ruled out, David Marty of Perpignan will probably take his place.
Johnson, meanwhile, has midfield decisions of his own to make – especially if Tindall's condition fails to improve. Toby Flood, clearly worth a start somewhere on the evidence of his tournament to date, ran at inside centre during yesterday's training. Meanwhile, James Haskell performed the No 8 duties, although Nick Easter is considered well in the frame for a recall.Reuse content