England, the shop-soiled world champions, flew to France yesterday to begin a defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy precious few people believe will be successfully completed. Not even Phil Vickery, the four-square yeoman of a captain from Cornwall, seemed particularly confident. "I don't want to be remembered as the man who had to give the cup back," he said before departure, "but we are under no illusions as to how difficult this will be."
Difficult indeed. As Vickery was offering a few thoughts on the trials and tribulations ahead, England's principal pool-stage opponents, the South Africans, were talking themselves up in a way Muhammad Ali himself might have recognised. The two countries meet here in the capital a week on Friday, by which time the holders will have played, and almost certainly subdued, the United States, and the Springboks will have gone toe to toe with Samoa, a much sterner test of mind and body but one their coach, Jake White, appears to be relishing. Certainly, he seemed full of the joys as he discussed his team's chances of winning the title for a second time. "There is unique pressure on us, but it is pressure we gladly accept," he said. "Pressure is probably the one thing our players handle better than anyone.
"You never take a World Cup for granted, but I am very, very happy with where we are. I have 16 guys from my first year in charge and I have a team with 860-odd caps between them. We've worked on this for the last four years. When I started in 2004, the main concern was to beat Ireland in a home series. Now, there is no doubt that people in South Africa believe we can win this competition."
When it comes to rugby, the Springboks tend not to bother with phoney wars, on the basis that they much prefer the real thing. England also adopted the strong, silent approach when they were in their pomp. Yet the words were flying thick and fast yesterday, with the South Africans comfortably outpointing their opponents.
If John Smit, the Springboks captain, remembers all too well what happened to the Boks in the last World Cup, despite determined attempts to erase the gory detail from his mind, he still managed to echo the confident soundings of his coach.
"There's a big contrast between now and 2003," said the hooker, a survivor of the notorious pre-tournament boot camp in which he and his colleagues were subjected to physical and psychological humiliations that bordered on the sado-masochistic. "Back then, every single guy was just happy to have survived and made it to Australia. There is a completely different focus this time. The squad is as settled as it has been at any point over the last decade and we have a very firm belief in our ability to win. That was probably missing in 2003."
Vickery was significantly less bullish as he boarded a British Airways flight renamed "Hope and Glory" for the occasion, possibly because the word 'hope' is never the most reassuring of words at 35,000 feet. "We must have no regrets," he said. "I hope no-one in the squad looks back on the tournament with 'if-onlys' or 'could haves', because it will be too late. I believe we can make a big impact, but this team needs to perform. If we can perform properly, we can spring a few surprises."
Happily, the champions arrived with a full complement of 30 players. Three of their number missed Sunday's send-off event in Hyde Park: the Wasps lock Simon Shaw was on antibiotics after picking up a facial infection; the Leicester flanker Martin Corry was struggling with his suspect knee ligaments; the Bath hooker Lee Mears was given a few hours off to celebrate becoming a father. News was less encouraging for the Samoans, however. Filipo Levi, perhaps the form tight forward in the party, will miss the tournament after fracturing an eye socket during the impressive warm-up victory at Sale a week and a half ago, thereby joining the prop Donald Kerslake and the hooker Silao Vaisola Sefo on the "thank you and good night" list.
Tani Fuga, a familiar face to Harlequins supporters, has been called in to replace Vaisola Sefo. "I'd just played my first pre-season game for Quins and was relaxing at home, watching TV, when I received a call from Michael Jones [the Samoa coach] asking if I would like to join the team," said Fuga, now in his 35th year. "I replied: 'It's the World Cup – of course!' I was quite excited."
The Samoans, who have drafted Alfie Vaeluaga in place of Kerslake, have yet to act in filling the second-row gap left by the unfortunate Levi. "Fikipo has been told to rest for at least two weeks and we don't want him to run the risk of a prolonged problem," said their manager, Kenape Tuuau. "It's a big loss for us, though. He was playing the best rugby of his life."Reuse content