Any thoughts the England coaching hierarchy may have had of fast-tracking Jonny Wilkinson into the red-rose squad for the final international fixture of the autumn series against South Africa a fortnight on Saturday thoughts so remote they were no more than a flight of fancy finally disappeared last night when the Newcastle club issued the latest injury bulletin in respect of their revered outside-half. Wilkinson suffered kidney damage during the Premiership victory over Bristol eight days ago and will spend the next month kicking his heels, as opposed to kicking goals.
He should be well used to the feeling by now, having spent the best part of three years battling problems with his neck, arm, groin, knee and appendix. With that sort of record, he might have expected little else to happen. He could not, however, have predicted the precise nature of this latest setback. Most rugby players have problems with their joints; they do not, as a general rule, suffer trouble with their internal organs.
Wilkinson played the full 80 minutes against Bristol and felt no immediate effects, but has complained of discomfort over the past few days and has been advised to refrain from all contact work for a month. "We're all desperately disappointed for Jonny, who showed fantastic form last Friday," said John Fletcher, the director of rugby at Kingston Park.
"It's a big blow for the team, especially with Toby Flood being away on international duty, but more importantly than that it's a big blow for Jonny himself. He has shown in the past what resilience he has in the face of injury, though, and I'm sure we will see the same amazing strength of character this time round."
Had the best defensive stand-off in the history of the game been in the England side against New Zealand last Sunday, the world champions may not have leaked anything like 41 points to the tourists. He was not, and they did. But the coaches do not feel entirely at a loss after the record humbling at Twickenham. Brian Ashton, the attacking strategist charged with shaping the defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy in France next year, yesterday talked of "mixed emotions", pointing to significant improvements in some areas of performance.
"The most positive thing about the New Zealand game from my perspective was the mindset of the players," argued the celebrated innovator. " More than 20 points down at the interval, they could have have said, 'Bugger it, we'll stick the ball up our jumper and do the damage limitation thing'. Instead, they had the confidence to keep playing, on the basis that they'd opened up the All Blacks a couple of times in the first half and could do it again. Of course, they weren't nearly ruthless enough, but at least they showed they had bought into what we're trying to do, which is attack opponents in different ways without losing what might be called the traditional values of English rugby."
As usual, Ashton had a point. In the immediate aftermath of a substantial pasting, in which the tourists scored the vast majority of their points with an ease bordering on the chilling, it seemed the most sensible reaction might involve a phone call to the Samaritans. Yet on reflection, England achieved more in terms of pure creativity in the space of 80 minutes than in the whole of the preceding six-and-a-half hours of losing rugby.
"We've had a collision-based game in England for some time now," Ashton explained, understating the case more than a little. "Now, we're trying to attack space, and a win would give the players a massive boost in the self-belief department." And the coaches too, presumably. "I'd say it was pretty high on our agenda at the moment," he conceded.
This elusive victory must be delivered against Argentina this weekend. The Pumas frequently perform at a far higher level than that suggested by their official status as the eighth-best side in the international game, and a number of their tour party Ignacio Corleto, Juan Martin Hernandez, Felipe Contepomi, Mario Ledesma, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, the Fernandez Lobbe brothers might challenge very hard for a place in the England side. They reek of danger. Yet as they are still widely considered to be a " second-tier" team, the smoked salmon and Chablis set in the Twickenham stands would struggle to accept a South American victory in this fixture. Like most people who have had enough, they want more.
As Mike Ford, the defence coach, acknowledged, this is a high-pressure game. "We've talked about it collectively and we feel that our concentration levels will have to be even greater than they were against the All Blacks," he said.
Ready to rock: Another sporting Elvis in the limelight
Elvis Vermeulen was yesterday named in the French side to play New Zealand on Saturday. Named after the singer because his father ('a second row forward as thick as a spade shaft,' according to his son) was a fan of the great Elvis.
'I don't like the singer and my name cost me some trouble on the rugby pitches,' Vermeulen added. 'Luckily, I was strong enough to silence my opponents.'
As a sporting Elvis, Vermeulen finds himself in good company:
Samoan rugby union player, plays for Sale Sharks and has won 15 caps for Samoa.
Leicester City footballer. English, but born in Accra, Ghana in 1980. Signed from Fulham for £225,000 in August 2005. Has scored three goals in 13 appearances this season.
British judoka. Commonwealth gold medallist. He won gold medals at the 1990 Commonwealth Games. Represented his country at judo at three consecutive Olympics.
Canadian figure-skater, three-time world and six-time national champion, double Olympic Games silver medallist.Reuse content