Noon heads for home as England prepare for 'knockout week'

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Call them the three "Hs" of rugby hell: humiliation, heartbreak and hurtful comments from opponents positively dripping with schadenfreude. If England – the reigning world champions, lest we forget – have barely started to deal with the deep embarrassment caused by their surrender to South Africa in St-Denis on Friday, the other components of the unholy trinity kicked in with a vengeance yesterday as Jamie Noon prepared to fly home with his knee ligaments in a mangle and Jake White, the Springbok coach, cast doubt on the holders' ability to qualify for the knock-out stage.

"Our players are under the impression, having taken on both teams, that if Samoa play the way they played against us, they will beat England," White said. "That is the feeling."

It was a stinging comment, and a serious one too. The Boks felt they had been in a game after their victory over the Pacific islanders at the Parc des Princes eight days ago, which was more than they felt after putting 36 unanswered points past Brian Ashton's team last Friday night. England face Samoa in Nantes on Saturday. Thanks to yesterday's surprising result in Montpellier, they will also be wary of the Tongans, whom they play in Paris on 28 September.

Yesterday, Noon was packing his bags – if, indeed, it was possible to perform such a deed with his left knee immobilised. He suffered a "grade two strain of the medial lateral ligament" during the latter stages of the non-contest with the Boks and will be out for a minimum of six weeks. As a result of the diagnosis, he will be treated by his club doctor at Newcastle rather than the England medical team here.

"I'm slowly getting used to the realisation that my dream is over," he said yesterday. "The hardest aspect is that I have been here only two weeks and played just two games. I was running down the blind side with a few minutes to go and bounced off a couple of bodies when another player landed on my leg. I felt my knee pop, so I knew it had gone. I have asked myself a few 'what if?' questions, but there's nothing I can do about it now. At least I'll be home for my daughter's first birthday."

There was better news on the hamstring injury suffered by Jason Robinson, which seemed at the time to signal the end of his tournament and, by extension, his career, in light of his decision to retire immediately after the competition. "Although he pulled up rather dramatically during the game, the location and size of the strain lead us to believe he has every chance of playing a further part," said Dr Simon Kemp, the senior medic. "As a consequence, he will stay with us and we will continue to rehabilitate him."

Kemp added that the two outside-halves, Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley, were making steady progress in recovering from their respective ankle and hip problems. "We've always anticipated they will be available for selection for this weekend's match," he said. "Nothing has happened over the past few days to change that view."

No light was shed on plans to summon a replacement for Noon. While England are still minded to opt for a like-for-like move – another Newcastle centre, Toby Flood, would be the obvious candidate – some believe Noon's misfortune gives them an opportunity to quicken a one-paced back row with the Wasps flanker James Haskell.

Frighteningly, the defence coach Mike Ford said yesterday that he and his colleagues were "still finding out about players at this World Cup" – an indictment of just about everyone and everything, given that World Cups come at the end of four-year planning cycles. "South Africa had one or two world-class players who made the difference," he said. "As for us, we are where we are with some of the players we have here. There is no point feeling sorry for ourselves, though. We have to treat this as a knockout week."

Ford and his allies staged a four-hour debrief into the Springbok defeat. "There was a lot of honesty in the room," he reported. Honesty is one thing, inspiration quite another. And it is inspiration that England need right now.