England, so desperate for sustenance they would snatch bread from the hands of a starving man, have made seven changes for Saturday's meeting with South Africa - approximately eight changes too few in the minds of the 75,000 Twickenhamites who paid good money to see the shambolic surrender to Argentina last weekend.
Every part of the side has been tweaked, but the words "deckchairs" and "Titanic" spring to mind, none the less. Where are Steve Thompson and Phil Vickery, two energising tight forwards armed with the raw aggression currently conspicuous by its absence? Not in the starting line-up, sadly.
Vickery, sweating his way back to form after a career-threatening injury, is at least on the bench, but Thompson, one of his front-row partners on that night of nights in Sydney three years ago, is nowhere to be seen. The only player dropped from the tight-five unit that performed with all the aggression of an elderly halibut against the Pumas is Danny Grewcock, the Bath lock. Tom Palmer, of Wasps, has been promoted from the ranks of the replacements, specifically to introduce some "tempo and pace", according to the head coach, Andy Robinson.
Lewis Moody, long one of Robinson's "givens", has also been dropped. Joe Worsley, of Wasps, one of the most reliable defensive back-rowers at Premiership level but some way short of fulfilment in the Test arena despite his half-century of caps, is recalled to the blind-side flank, while Pat Sanderson moves to his optimum breakaway position. Martin Corry also relocates, from the short-side position to No 8. He retains the captaincy too, despite finding himself on the uncomfortable end of the views expressed by Rob Andrew, the elite director of rugby, on Monday.
"I didn't think it was right to abandon Martin as captain," said Robinson. "It took a big man to stand up in front of everyone, as he did on Saturday, and say that the players should take the blame for what happened. To then go out and shoot him, to say 'Thanks very much, you're no longer captain' would have been totally wrong in my view. The back-row combination hasn't worked over the last couple of weeks. A lot of you will say you told me so, and I accept that. But we feel this is the right selection for a route-one side like South Africa, who depend so much on momentum."
Some of the selections and non-selections were outside of Robinson's control, thanks both to injuries and the unique complexities of the three-game limit agreed with the Premiership clubs. Paul Sackey, who put a brilliant individual try past the Argentines, is unfit, but as Mark Cueto, of Sale, virtually an automatic selection on the right wing, has recovered from ankle problems, the change would probably have been made anyway. Tom Rees, the uncapped Wasps flanker, was not considered because of a shoulder complaint. Ben Cohen has made way for Josh Lewsey on the left wing as he cannot play all four autumn internationals.
Other changes have been made on the basis of form. Peter Richards, of Gloucester, replaces Shaun Perry at scrum-half - no particular surprise given the latter's frailties against the Pumas, although his greater physicality and sharper pass might have come in handy against the Springboks - while Mathew Tait joins his Newcastle colleague Jamie Noon in midfield at the expense of Anthony Allen. "Please believe me when I say Anthony leaves us with his head held high," Robinson pleaded. "He has a wonderful future ahead of him at international level."
It is well known that the coach's position is every bit as perilous as that of his captain. Corry probably has 80 minutes in which to save himself - a tough ask, even against opponents as underwhelming as this current South African vintage - while Robinson cannot afford to think beyond the next 160 minutes of activity. (England play the Boks again on Saturday week.) Yesterday, after 72 hours of hellish suffering, he acknowledged the gravity of the situation.
"I can't hide from my responsibilities and I'm not going to try," he said. "I agree our decision-making was poor last weekend, that we shot ourselves in the foot in terms of game management, made too many errors, kicked too much ball away. But this is an ongoing process and mistakes are going to be made. We are trying to develop a game that will take us where we think we'll need to be in the future and it's bound to take time. When we get it right, it looks brilliant; when we don't, it looks bad. But there will be no turning back, no return to nine-man rugby."
They were characteristically bold sentiments, full of passionate intensity. But if England fail to win this weekend and lose an eighth successive game for the first time in their history, there are no words in the language capable of protecting Robinson from the wolves.
l Graham Henry yesterday named New Zealand's "best team right now" for the second Test against France on Saturday. The All Blacks made five changes to the starting XV which crushed France 47-3 last Saturday in Lyon. Centres Ma'a Nonu and Mils Muliaina replace Conrad Smith and Luke McAlister. Byron Kelleher and Chris Jack are back at scrum-half and lock. Keven Mealamu takes over from the veteran Anton Oliver at Hooker.
England team to play South Africa
1 A Sheridan (Sale Sharks
2 G Chuter (Leicester)
3 J White (Leicester)
4 T Palmer (Wasps)
5 B Kay (Leicester)
6 J Worsley (Wasps)
7 P Sanderson (Worcester)
8 M Corry (Leicester, capt)
9 P Richards (Gloucester)
10 C Hodgson (Sale Sharks)
11 J Lewsey (Wasps)
12 J Noon (Newcastle)
13 M Tait (Newcastle)
14 M Cueto (Sale Sharks)
15 I Balshaw (Gloucester)
Replacements: 16 L Mears (Bath), 17 P Vickery (Wasps), 18 C Jones (Sale Sharks), 19 L Moody (Leicester), 20 S Perry (Bristol), 21 A Goode (Leicester), 22 T Flood (Newcastle).Reuse content