Phil Vickery is England's captain, and will remain so for the course of this World Cup campaign, but there is no hiding the fact that the long-serving prop is leading his country in every department except the one that matters most.
Available for selection after serving a two-match suspension for hacking an American player across the shins during the champions' opening game in Lens, he failed to make the starting XV for Friday night's win-or-bust meeting with Tonga at Parc des Princes. Matt Stevens has held his place in the front row, with Martin Corry continuing as the on-field skipper.
Yesterday, the head coach Brian Ashton made it abundantly clear that Stevens had been chosen on form. "He's taken his opportunity really well and deserves to continue," Ashton said. "The captaincy is more than a symbolic role – if it weren't, anyone would be able to do it – but it is a secondary issue in this instance. The main issue was the front-row combination, and with Matt doing particularly well, we thought it best to ease Phil back by benching him. He's fine about it. At least, he seems fine on the face of it."
The coach agreed with the proposition that Vickery's frustration levels must be running dangerously high – "I don't suppose he's the happiest man in the tournament," he said – but denied that his decision to dump the big Cornishman among the replacements was an exercise in internal discipline. "You have to take your punishment, which Phil has done," Ashton remarked. "I hope I'm more of a humanitarian than to add to that punishment. Phil hasn't played for a couple of weeks; Matt is playing some good stuff. That's the reason."
Corry was a paragon of diplomacy, as always. "If Phil is on the bench, he'll play a part at some stage," the Leicester back-rower told his audience. "When he does arrive on the field, he'll take over as captain." Was there not just a little in the way of smug satisfaction in being named as captain for the second consecutive week, less than a year after being stripped of the title by Ashton? Apparently not. "When Brian phoned to tell me his decision and his reasons for making it, I understood," he responded. "If I'd been in his shoes, I'd have done the same thing. Captaincy is not something for which I strive. The thing I care about is being in the starting XV."
England will have two fresh faces, if not new ones, in the pack. Steve Borthwick, the Bath lock, joins Ben Kay in the engine room at the expense of Simon Shaw, while Lewis Moody of Leicester replaces Joe Worsley on the open-side flank. Worsley joins Vickery among the replacements, as does Lawrence Dallaglio, who might just have been wondering whether this tournament was passing him by.
While Ashton described the changes as "player management" decisions, the pairing of Borthwick and Kay is an interesting departure. Both men are serious students of line-out dynamics, well used to calling the shots when England have the throw and organising the resistance when they do not. Yet while they are regarded as middle jumpers, Borthwick is sufficiently versatile to make a decent fist of the front-jumping role. As the coach said: "This combination might give us more variations and allow us to mount more of a challenge on opposition ball."
Two players – the former captain Jason Robinson and the flanker Tom Rees – remain injured and were not considered for this game. A third, the wing Paul Sackey, was held back from training yesterday after complaining of some discomfort in his right leg. Sackey is expected to play, however. He put two excellent tries past Samoa in Nantes last Saturday, and helped create another for Corry. If he does something similar on Friday against Joseph Vaka, the kind of South Seas wing who considers the bulldozer to be a thing of beauty, the reigning champions will be eternally grateful.
"I see this as a greater challenge than the one against the Samoans," Ashton said. "We can't sit around thinking we need only turn up to win because Tonga's performances in this tournament demand respect. They play with massive enthusiasm, they are a cohesive unit up front and they have the ability to stay in a game for 80 minutes, which hasn't always been the case. Against these opponents, a momentary lack of concentration will cause major problems. Samoa discovered that much when they played them in Montpellier."
With Mathew Tait hanging on to his place in midfield – "It was a close call between Mathew and Dan Hipkiss for the outside centre role, but at some stage a side needs some consistency," the coach explained – the England back division will be unchanged for the first time since Ashton succeeded Andy Robinson as top dog 10 months ago. And with Lee Mears, the diminutive Bath hooker, named among the reserves and likely to get a run at some point, all 30 members of the original squad will be able to say they have played a part.
Which leaves Toby Flood, the Newcastle midfielder called in last week for the injured Jamie Noon. Flood should have been here from the start, but if the unthinkable happens and the champions lose on Friday night, he will at least fly home with a spotless reputation to go with his stain-free kit.
England team to face Tonga
World Cup Pool A match at the Parc des Princes on Friday, 8pm:
15 J Lewsey (Wasps)
14 P Sackey (Wasps)
13 M Tait (Newcastle)
12 O Barkley (Bath)
11 M Cueto (Sale)
10 J Wilkinson (Newcastle)
9 A Gomarsall (Quins)
1 A Sheridan (Sale)
2 G Chuter (Leicester)
3 M Stevens (Bath)
4 S Borthwick (Bath)
5 B Kay (Leicester)
6 M Corry (Leicester, capt)
7 L Moody (Leicester)
8 N Easter (Quins)
Replacements: L Mears (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps), L Dallaglio (Wasps), J Worsley (Wasps), P Richards (London Irish), A Farrell (Saracens), D Hipkiss (Leicester).