Ashton switches central figures as Farrell faces moment of truth
Gallows humour is not entirely appropriate in these parts, given the French preference for the guillotine, but the England coach Brian Ashton could be forgiven a little laughter in the darkness on the eve of tonight's World Cup meeting with the most potent collection of Springboks gathered together since the 1999 tournament.
"I woke up this morning, saw the blue sky above and thought to myself: there's bound to be a bloody great piano up there somewhere, waiting to fall on us." Yes, the holders of the Webb Ellis Trophy are in that sort of mood.
This evening in Saint-Denis, they will discover everything they need to know about themselves. Are the forwards up for a fight? They had better be, because the South Africans – not least Bakkies Botha and Juan Smith – will give them one, so to speak. Are the red-rose defences watertight? It would be best if they were, for Bryan Habana will find the slightest crack in the edifice. Can Andy Farrell kick goals in rugby union with the same unerring accuracy he once displayed in rugby league? Ashton believes Farrell to be capable of pretty much anything, but the Saracens centre has taken aim so rarely since switching codes that there is no firm evidence available.
Farrell has accumulated the grand total of seven senior points for Saracens with his marksmanship. He also kicked one from three during a World XV match with a South African XV last December. The remainder of his shots at goal have been at second-team level: 18 points against a Leicester development side almost a year ago, followed by another 14 against the might of Henley RFC seven days later, then 14 more against the Northampton second-stringers. In that last game, he missed three conversions out of seven. He may have many virtues, but he is not Dusty Hare.
England have some alternatives in this regard, but in the absence of Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley, they do not exactly inspire confidence. Mike Catt knows what it is to take aim at international level, but he has not performed the deed for a very long time. Andy Gomarsall, one of the two scrum-halves on an odd-looking replacements' bench, also fancies himself as a kicker, but he is no one's idea of a regular. Meanwhile, South Africa have Percy Montgomery, who has scored 797 Test points – a haul that includes 133 conversions and 131 penalties. Crikey.
In fairness to Ashton, he had no option but to ask Farrell to take on the responsibility once Barkley pranged himself in a training session on Tuesday. There was encouraging news about both Barkley and Wilkinson yesterday – "Jonny will train next week and be available for the match with Samoa, and there is a strong chance that Olly will make it too," Ashton reported – but as far as the meeting with the Boks was concerned, it was entirely irrelevant. By the time England meet the Pacific Islanders in Nantes, they could be in mortal danger of failing to make the knock-out stage.
Ashton might have shed some light on the new midfield configuration earlier than he did, but yesterday, all was finally revealed. Catt will wear the No 10 shirt and spend the vast majority of his time at outside-half, while Farrell will wear 12 and operate at inside centre. "They'll both be playing as inside backs, so I don't really understand the fuss about the numbers," the coach said. "And if I didn't think they were capable of coping, I wouldn't have put them in the team."
Despite English assurances to the contrary, the Springboks were reluctant to believe that Wilkinson was definitely out of the game. "They must know more about his medical condition than I know," Ashton said in exasperated tones. "He's simply not fit to train fully at the moment, and he's not in the 22-man squad for the match."
The South Africans would have been far better advised to take a close look at their rivals' line-out. It would be entirely alien to Ashton to contest this game without a cunning plan or two, and the indications yesterday were that Martin Corry, reinstated as captain, would be given a roving brief in an effort to cramp the style of Botha, Smith and Victor Matfield.
At least Corry will not have to contend with Schalk Burger around the field. The Western Province flanker had been banned for four matches after being found guilty of hitting the Samoan scrum-half Junior Polu with a dangerous tackle in the Boks' opening match at Parc des Princes, but an appeals committee halved the suspension after representations from the South Africans' legal team. He will now be available for the match with the United States on 30 September, but still misses tonight's rather more significant contest.
"Burger is a world-class player and they'll be weakened by his absence, " Corry said. "But the guy coming in" – Wikus van Heerden, the tough and resourceful Blue Bulls forward – "is very strong over the ball and should not be underrated."
All the same, it is a chink of light for England. Given a free hand, the Boks would have played both Burger and the extraordinary No 8 Pierre Spies in this game. Spies is back home battling with a lung condition, while their most dynamic turnover specialist is under lock and key. "Phew," as the England captain might have said, but didn't.
Despite their back-row upheavals, the Boks are heavy favourites to beat the champions in a full-blooded Test match for the first time since a tight game in Pretoria seven years ago. A few months previously, in a World Cup quarter-final played at this very stadium in the northern suburbs of the French capital, Jannie de Beer had dropped five goals in a 44-21 victory that left England in pieces. The red-rose pessimists – and there are many of them – expect tonight's experience to be equally painful.
Stade de France teams
15 J Robinson (unattached)
14 J Lewsey (Wasps)
13 J Noon (Newcastle)
12 A Farrell (Saracens)
11 P Sackey (Wasps)
10 M Catt (London Irish)
9 S Perry (Bristol)
1 A Sheridan (Sale)
2 M Regan (Bristol)
3 M Stevens (Bath)
4 S Shaw (Wasps)
5 B Kay (Leicester)
6 M Corry (Leicester, capt)
7 T Rees (Wasps)
8 N Easter (Harlequins)
Replacements: 16 G Chuter (Leicester); 17 P Freshwater (Perpignan); 18 S Borthwick (Bath); 19 L Moody (Leicester); 20 A Gomarsall (Harlequins). 21 M Tait (Newcastle); 22 P Richards (London Irish).
15 P Montgomery (Natal Sharks)
14 J P Pietersen (Natal Sharks)
13 J Fourie (Golden Lions)
12 F Steyn (Natal Sharks)
11 B Habana (Blue Bulls)
10 B James (Natal Sharks)
9 F Du Preez (Blue Bulls)
1 O Du Randt (Free State)
2 J Smit (Natal Sharks, capt)
3 B J Botha (Natal Sharks)
4 B Botha (Blue Bulls)
5 V Matfield (Blue Bulls)
6 W Van Heerden (Blue Bulls)
7 J Smith (Free State)
8 D Rossow (Blue Bulls)
Replacements: 16 B Du Plessis (Natal Sharks); 17 C J Van der Linde (Free State); 18 J Muller (Natal Sharks); 19 R Skinstad (Natal Sharks); 20 R Pienaar (Natal Sharks); 21 A Pretorius (Golden Lions); 22 W Olivier (Blue Bulls).
Referee: J Jutge (France)
Kick-off: 8.0 (ITV1).