Wilkinson and Flood ready to lift red rose fortunes
There was an unfamiliar whiff of encouraging news around the ailing England camp yesterday, not that any of it concerned those who participated in the profoundly pointless display against South Africa in St-Denis last Friday evening.
Jonny Wilkinson was declared fit, almost a fortnight after spraining his right ankle in training, and will therefore be named in the side to face Samoa in this weekend's perilous game in Nantes.
Olly Barkley was also expected to be available, following a seriously inconvenient hip injury, while Toby Flood joined the squad as a replacement for his stricken Newcastle clubmate Jamie Noon. About time too.
Wilkinson has never been the most electrifying outside-half in world rugby, but he at least understands how to place a thumb and finger on his opponents' pressure points. As both Barkley and Flood are blessed with the vision thing, it is just possible that, when the shop-soiled champions take on the ever-dangerous Pacific islanders at Stade de la Beaujoire, they will do it playing a style of rugby suited to grass rather than wet cement. Who knows?
The medical team may even have found a method of reversing the imagination bypass operation secretly performed on the English back division shortly after the Six Nations victory over France last spring.
Brian Ashton, the head coach, faced some hard questioning at the spectacularly opulent team base in Versailles. (Just a thought: under what circumstances would Samoa or Tonga ever get to stay in accommodation as luxurious as that provided at the Trianon Palace Hotel? Even if they reached the final, they'd expect to be fobbed off with a two-star pension next to an all-night bar in the Pigalle). During the interrogation, he mounted another strong defence of the former Great Britain rugby league captain Andy Farrell, whose efforts in international union have yet to capture the hearts and minds of the wider public.
"People talk about one player, and it seems to be the same player time and time again," Ashton said. "It's grossly unfair. If 14 people were out there playing a blinder and one wasn't, it might be a reasonable subject for discussion. But Andy Farrell was no better and no worse than anyone else last Friday night."
That last point was not quite accurate – Jason Robinson, another member of the cross-code community, played magnificently before being forced from the field with hamstring trouble – but the coach was in no mood to engage in a discussion on the subject of any individual.
Of course, Ashton is picking on individuals right, left and centre in private. He really has no choice, given England's position, and it will be surprising if there are not changes to every area of the starting line-up when the team for this weekend's match is announced today. "Players don't go on to the field to lose games and let people down," he said, "but, if I'm honest, there are times when I sit there thinking: 'I wish we were playing in a more balanced way.'
"Our discipline is not what it should be, and we're failing to convert opportunities into scores. Under certain circumstances, you expect an international team to put points on the board. We aren't doing it. We've reached the stage where everyone has to stand up and be counted, because there are no hiding places now. There are two pool games left to us, and we need two wins. We're working as hard as we know how to deliver those victories. Speaking for myself, I've had easier weekends than the one just gone. I didn't spend much time out of doors, that's for sure."
Despite straw-clutching suggestions to the contrary, there is no prospect of Robinson playing an active role in Nantes. "My goal is to recover in time for the game with Tonga and I'm optimistic about it," he said. But that appeared to be the extent of his optimism. Usually so bullish in his assessment of England's international prospects, the former captain spoke with an ironic air that almost amounted to resignation.
"We weren't good enough against the Boks," he conceded. "We were average, and we received the thumping we deserved. I seem to have been saying the same thing for the last three weeks – that we have a real performance in us that is bound to come out. I'm sick of saying it, to be honest. I hope it will come out this week. If getting the job done means rucking for 80 minutes, then that's what we'll have to do."
When a free spirit like Robinson starts talking about an England team rucking the opposition off the park as a means of finding a route out of a World Cup pool stage, things have come to a pretty pass. Truly, this is a desperate mess.