England are not good at expecting the unexpected. It confuses them. Given the choice, they would rather face teams they understand – the Wallabies, for instance, or even the Springboks – than mix it with mysterious opponents who barely understand themselves, like Tonga. This evening's winner-take-all Pool A game at Parc des Princes is not, therefore, the cakewalk it might have appeared when the World Cup draw was made. The reigning champions should prevail, and do so with a considerable degree of comfort, but they will happily settle for a 20-point victory and a clean bill of health.
Eight years ago, in the only previous fixture between the two countries, Martin Johnson's team accumulated points the way Kevin Pietersen accumulates runs: quickly, and in disconcertingly large volume. The highlight – or lowlight, depending on the width of the individual observer's puritan streak – was a spectacular brawl in which Matt Perry was dumped on his head from high altitude and Richard Hill was sparkled by a heavyweight prop, whose punch was so late as to border on the posthumous. "We have erased that game from our history," said the Tongan centre Epi Taione, with some feeling.
Two tournaments on, the Pacific islanders are a different proposition. Quddus Fielea, their coach, took an age to track down his best players and bring them together from the four corners of the earth, but he finally managed it. As a result, England will face something resembling a professional outfit rather than a ragtag band of impoverished amateurs. "This is no school team we're playing," Phil Vickery said yesterday. "They're a grown-up side, and if we don't treat them as such, we'll find ourselves in trouble."
Vickery has experienced quite enough trouble for one competition. The captain was banned for two matches after the opening victory over the United States – "It looked ugly, but as I told the judicial officer at the hearing, there was no malice in it," he said of his comically clumsy trip on the American centre Paul Emerick – and now finds himself manacled to the replacements', bench, having lost his front-row place to the Bath prop Matt Stevens. "I don't know if 'upset' is the right word, but I'm certainly disappointed," he confessed. "It's not been nice, playing one game and being suspended for two. A team can be out of this tournament after four matches, so missing two is a big thing."
Not that Vickery expects to find himself on a plane back to Heathrow tomorrow. He admitted to being apprehensive about tonight's proceedings, but put this into perspective by stressing the importance of the fear factor. "I need to feel the fear, whatever the game," he explained. "If it's not there inside you in the run-up to a match, it's time to worry. And matches don't come much more important than this. However you dress it up, it's a must-win fixture. If we lose, we're out. Why wouldn't we have some fear inside us?"
Brian Ashton, the coach, used different words to describe the mood among a squad of players searching for form as a starving man might search a trash can at the dead of night. "I think there was some anxiety before last weekend's game with Samoa, but that anxiety has been replaced by a positive feeling of anticipation," he said. "We expect a physical game, a game in which the neutrals will be supporting the Tongans. I don't believe there is any such thing as a neutral supporter when England are playing. It's a big match, clearly, but I've been sleeping well." The biggest match of his coaching career? "Probably," he replied. "So far."
Ashton reported that Paul Sackey, the Wasps wing, was fit to play, having recovered from a minor leg problem that prevented him training earlier in the week. As things stand, only two players in the 30-man squad – Jason Robinson and Tom Rees – are unfit. The situation could look very different come 10pm, however. Whatever the outcome on the scoreboard, the champions expect to take a pounding. Unlike their Polynesian neighbours from Samoa, the Tongans believe they will last the full 80 minutes. "It's one of the differences between this team and those we have sent to World Cups in the past," said Nili Latu, their captain.
While Ashton shrugged his shoulders at the suggestion that Jonny Wilkinson, so important to the England cause, might receive a threatening visit or two from the likes of Latu and Taione – "I have every confidence in the referees to take care of players in this tournament, and anyway, Jonny can look after himself," he said – there are injuries waiting to happen in this game. When the Samoans finally realised the Tongans were serious about winning the inter-island derby 12 days ago and started throwing the kitchen sink in their direction, they finished a distant second in the physicality stakes. If England have any sort of a soft centre, these opponents will locate it and consume it for breakfast.
But as long as Wilkinson is there to kick the goals from the tee and hit the corners out of hand, England should take enough from a Tongan line-out weakened by the absence of the incapacitated Paino Hehea to secure their place in the last eight. Steve Borthwick, the Bath lock, is hoping to have a major say in this, because the rest of his tournament depends on the 80 minutes he delivers tonight. Should Borthwick dovetail with Ben Kay, the selectors will be sorely tempted to run him against Australia in Marseilles next weekend. If he misfires, the chances of the champions wrecking the Wallaby line-out – their best hope of victory – will be severely reduced.
That is a story for another day, of course. Right now, England have a Test match to win. Given their desperate start to this tournament, it is as well not to expect anything. Apart, that is, from the unexpected.
Colour of money causes a headache for Tongans
One of the great issues of this or any other rugby epoch was under debate in the French capital last night – an issue so critically important to the well-being of the sport that minor World Cup problems such as faulty timekeeping and one-eyed refereeing were placed on the back burner and allowed to boil themselves dry. The question surrounded hair. That is to say, Tongan hair and the colour of it. Should it remain in its natural state for the islanders' decisive pool game with England this evening, or might a nice shade of green be acceptable?
Some of the Tongan players, enthusiastically incited by the centre Epi Taione, and including Hudson Tonga'uiha, dyed their hair on Wednesday as a means of publicising a sponsorship deal with an Irish bookmaking concern. "We've struggled to cover our basic costs for accommodation and food," said Taione. "We've had £40,000 to last us the tournament. I'm not sure what England are on."
Despite the disproportionate levels of funding, the World Cup organisers were worried that the Tongans were infringing advertising regulations, and were therefore preparing to tell them to "wash that dye right out of their hair".
Well, they do come from the South Pacific...
Key battles: Where England must combat Tonga's big hitters
Paul Sackey v Joseph Vaka
Vaka plays his club rugby in Japan for the World Fighting Bulls. He plays like a World Fighting Bull, too. According to the statistics, he has a 30kg advantage over the in-form Sackey, and if his performances in this tournament are anything to go by, he will attempt to make the most of it.
Olly Barkley v Epi Taione
For the second time in less than a week, Barkley finds himself up against one of the biggest hitters in the midfield fraternity. Having avoided the worst against Brian Lima of Samoa last Saturday – some bloke called Wilkinson copped it instead – the Bath centre will be praying his luck holds once again.
Nick Easter v Finau Maka
Easter did enough against Samoa to hold his place ahead of Lawrence Dallaglio, but Finau Maka, the Tongan No 8, is fitter and more motivated than Henry Tuilagi, if not constructed on quite the same scale. Easter must neutralise Maka's driving from the base of the scrum. If he fails, England will suffer.Reuse content