England prepare for 'second cup final'
England must be the first rugby team in history to know everything they need to know about Tonga, who have long been considered among the more impenetrable mysteries of the union game.
Asked yesterday whether the reigning world champions possessed the kind of information that might allow a fully professional approach to this week's winner-takes-all qualification match in Paris, the forwards coach John Wells insisted that they were fully clued up and ready to build on last Saturday's 22-point victory over Samoa, rated the most powerful of the three Pacific island teams.
Wells was not suggesting for a moment that he and his fellow strategists knew their Soane Patita Pat Boone Sioape Haveas from their 'Aisea Paseisei Havili Kaufusis, or that they would recognise 'Otenili Langilangi (otherwise known as Nili Latu, the captain), even if he were standing in the same phone box. Tonga remain a surprise package, as the Samoans, who lost to them in Montpellier nine days ago, would be the first to acknowledge. Instead, he pointed out that the islanders are playing so much better than ever before that, when it comes to constructing a game plan, all history is bunk.
"We have the evidence of the games they've played in this tournament, which is the only relevant subject matter," he said. "We've seen three performances from them few imagined they could produce – performances very different from those they delivered in previous World Cups. They are well coached and well drilled. They're a quality set-up playing to their full potential, and they have the added advantage of momentum. Last weekend's match with Samoa was a cup final for us. We also know we have another cup final on Friday night."
In his best Queen's English, the former Leicester flanker described the days leading into the Samoan game as "a real bastard of a week" and indicated he was in no hurry to repeat the experience. "By hook or by crook we got through it," he said, "and the emotion we feel now is a mix of relief and satisfaction at dealing with a situation in which we were well up against it. There were some good individual efforts against Samoa, but overall I wouldn't go further than to call it a performance of sorts. We face a different challenge against Tonga. I mean no disrespect to Samoa, but this team can scrummage, they have a line-out, they're experienced in the darker arts of the game and they can win ball. That back row of theirs is a cracking combination, so we'll have to get our selection absolutely right."
England will reveal their hand today, after checking the medical bulletin and making some delicate decisions in a variety of areas. Phil Vickery, the captain, has now served his two-match suspension; Jason Robinson, who suffered a hamstring injury during the embarrassing defeat by South Africa, is making reasonable progress on the rehabilitation front. While both will feature if they are considered ready, Vickery has a better chance than his fellow thirtysomething of starting the match.
Robinson did not train yesterday. Neither did Tom Rees, the young Wasps flanker, who has a thigh problem and spent the morning being pummelled by the physiotherapists. Even so, Rees will be the central figure in one of the more intriguing selectorial decisions. Having travelled to France as the undisputed front-runner for the breakaway position, he was omitted from the side who faced Samoa. Should the coaches overlook him in favour of Joe Worsley (or even Lewis Moody, whose appearances thus far have had a Halley's Comet frequency about them), he will find his World Cup campaign evaporating before his very eyes.
Much to the surprise of everyone, including those residing in downtown Nuku'alofa, the Tongans show no sign of evaporating. Such is their confidence after two decent victories and a defeat of heroic proportions, they spent yesterday wondering whether they might actually have beaten the Springboks in Lens on Saturday, instead of finishing five points short. Angus Naupoto, their manager, could be heard complaining that the English referee, Wayne Barnes, had brought a premature end to the game, thereby sparing some very frazzled South Africans the torment of defending a line-out five metres from their own whitewash.
At the same time, the coach, Quddus Fielea, was talking up his team. "At our first press conference, I said we were looking to get to the quarter-finals," said Fielea, who has lost his impressive second row Paino Hehea to a shoulder injury and called up Maama Molitika, a player with considerable experience of British rugby. "I could see people looking at me thinking I was crazy. Now we are one game away from getting there. People need to say sorry."