James Lawton: England's old nags must take their last chance to run with the thoroughbreds

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The Independent Online

Fears that England's hold on the World Cup will slip even more today in Nantes are well founded on their form line from rugby hell, but are still probably excessive. This is because whatever the threat Samoa pose, it could hardly be greater than the fear that we may not yet have seen the full scale of English decline.

However, England do not have the problem they faced in their last match at the Stade de France; they will not be obliged to feel like selling-platers lining up down the road for the Arc de Triomphe.

Indeed, the great migration to New Zealand, while much to the benefit of the All Blacks, has left Samoa with scarcely aquorum of true world-class rampagers and there is an additional bonus for the care-raddled coach of the reigning champions, Brian Ashton.

His counterpart, Michael Jones, who in his day as an All-Black thought little of separating an opponent from hissenses, if not his sternum, has admitted that the growth of sensitivities in today's game – something he has noticed, amazingly, without being awarded the Galileo trophy for exceptional vision – have persuaded him to switch to some extent the classic point of attack for his South Sea warriors.

They should now, he advises, make their target area not English torsos but their "bread baskets". For the average outsider this may not come across as an overwhelming cause for celebration in the English dressing room, but, hey, how much to better to sacrifice the morning croissant rather than half your ribcage?

There are other, perhaps more significant, reasons to believe that Ashton may indeed avoid the ultimate humiliation of ejection at the pool stage of a tournament Sir Clive Woodward's team pounded and kicked into submission four years ago.

One is that Samoa, slaughtered by South Africa as profoundly as England were in Paris last week, have the additional scar of defeat by Tonga on a psyche which dwindles alarmingly when a hint of doubt comes to the old, soaring imperative of smashing every opponent into another realm of consciousness.

The other is that Ashton's team have nowhere to go but up after their scarcely believable ineptitude at the Stade de France, where the South Africans seemed to be operating on an entirely different level of understanding – and in a different game.

The return of Jonny Wilkinson, hopefully for more than one or two jarring pieces of inter-action with what is left of Samoan fury, and Olly Barkley, may just gave the English midfield some of the authority that the poignant figure of AndyFarrell, lost in another code and another life, so signally failed to supply against the superb Springboks.

England's pack, led by a Martin Corry who, for as long as anyone can remember, has worn an expression so tortured he might not have been periodically leading England but being interviewed by the old KGB, may just believe that they have reached the point where they have nothing to lose but their chains. It means that if there are still some embers of English belief, they might just be fanned to some effect this afternoon.

None of this means that England's campaign in this hopelessly unbalanced sixth World Cup is likely to be seen as anything but a disaster. Like the rest of the northern hemisphere, England have been exposed not only for their limitations in the quality of their tactics and personnel, but for the total lack of any sense of growth, of innate confidence or coherent picture of what the future might just bring.

While France and Ireland were last night competing ostensibly for the minor prize of being the best of a wretched challenge to the teams from the south, England's plight made the intervention of the former captain Martin Johnson seem ever more likely before the team is re-formed for the Six Nations Championship.

Jonno has inevitably become the symbol of all that England have shed since he led them to victory in Sydney in 2003: bullish conviction, a vision of how to win that was as hard as it was practical, and an absolute refusal to accept the concept of defeat. That was a brilliant cocktail in his day and his circumstances, but will it be enough to stimulate a new England? Hardly. England need more than combative sentiments and the rallying of pride. Admittedly, that last quality seemed to have disappeared down a back alley in St-Denis last week, but then a lorry-load of it would have done little to close the gap between the likes of Fourie du Preez, Percy Montgomery and Bryan Habana, and the pallid Englishmen they faced in the Stade de France.

The South Africans were miles better in every respect and surely now represent the likeliest threat to a formal All Black march to triumph. Du Preez has already made a claim to being the player of the tournament, a scrum half of bite and subtlety and strength enough to evoke a picture of Gareth Edwards. Whether he can lead his team beyond the range of the magnificent Daniel Carter and his New Zealand team-mates is an intriguing question – and one that makes the plight of England and the rest of the northern hemisphere all the harder to bear.

Indeed, in many ways the promise of this World Cup cannot end too soon for anyone whose allegiance belongs north of the Equator. It is as though they have the wrong clothes for a party to which they simply should not have been invited.

Meanwhile, for strategic reasons which do not appear to be provoking a whisper of complaint in the rugby community, Scotland prepare to field a radically reduced team against New Zealand at a sold-out Murrayfield tomorrow. This will give them a better chance of beating Italy and staggering into the knockout action.

The truth is that the strength in this World Cup is too thin, too unevenly spread. Maybe for the foreseeable future, rugby should adopt the Davis Cup format, but then that would mean less hype, less sponsorship, less TV, less money. However, credibility is quite an important asset too. At the moment it is dwindling at such an alarming rate it is not only England but of all rugby that has the most urgent need. It is to show evidence that it has the ability to get some kind of grip on the realities of front-rank professional sport.

Forgotten fans and bad blood will outlast this latest folly of Abramovich

There is apparently a flickering of concern at Chelsea that the credibility of the club has been compromised, both on the terraces and in the dressing room, by the appointment of the unqualified Avram Grant as Jose Mourinho's successor. But more staggering than his elevation is the fact that the club's billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich, and his advisers could have anticipated any other reaction but dismay.

This, though, is what happens when you see a football club as a personal playpen, in which you can promote your friends willy-nilly, rather than something that is deeply embedded in the affection and the dreams of a much wider community.

It surely calls into question the Premier League's open-door policy for every self-indulgent oligarch, deposed prime minister and questing speculator.

Most staggering was the widespread failure to read the Indian signs at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho was a lame-duck manager for one whole summer and one full season. Though he did much to damage his own reputation for both judgement and fair play, he was eventually refused the basic means to do his job.

However long Abramovich's crony lasts – and the gut feeling here is that he will be lucky to see Christmas on the job – there is surely one reality. It is that the fans of Chelsea, so recently chanting about the extent of their wealth and their power, have had a shocking insight into where they stand in the regard of the club they have supported so enthusiastically. It is, of course, nowhere.

Sporting gestures should be natural

Leicester City have been officially congratulated for their gesture in allowing Nottingham Forest to reclaim the one-goal lead they lost in a Carling Cup tie abandoned amid fears that one of the Leicester players was in danger of losing his life.

Who could complain? It is right that such behaviour is noted and encouraged in what many have written off as the age of football greed and rampant cheating.

However, there has to be a certain sadness when doing the right thing in such circumstances is something that just cannot be taken as a natural part of the sporting life.