Wilkinson faces six-week absence
There are twisted ankles, and there are Jonny Wilkinson's twisted ankles. England's stellar outside-half was back amongst his fellow World Cup holders yesterday, a day after collapsing in a heap during a non-contact training session in Versailles, and the news he gave them was grim indeed.
The worst fears about sprained ligaments had been realised, and his chances of taking the field against the Springboks a week tomorrow were depressingly remote. As a result, the champions have embarked on a re-think of their tournament strategy.
For starters, they have put back their scheduled team announcement for the meeting with South Africa by 24 hours. This will now take place on Tuesday, by which time Wilkinson will have had six days of intensive treatment and more will be known about his recovery timetable. No one in the England camp seriously expects him to be fit before the game with Samoa on 22 September; in fact, the final pool fixture with Tonga six days after that appears the more realistic target.
In the worst-case scenario, Tonga will come and go without so much as a sighting of the man who dropped the goal that won the 2003 World Cup. Simon Moyes, a leading orthopaedic surgeon based at the Wellington Hospital in London, predicted a six-week lay-off.
"He is likely to be undergoing a 'rice' programme – Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation – plus intensive physiotherapy on the full spectrum of the damaged lateral ligaments," he said. "If we are praying, I can imagine he would be fit within three weeks. It is more likely to be six."
Even if Wilkinson gets off lightly, his misfortune begs an interesting question: can England find their way through a physically debilitating round-robin stage with one specialist outside-half in Olly Barkley and a profoundly inexperienced second-string goal-kicker in Andy Farrell?
If Brian Ashton, the head coach, concludes that they cannot, a replacement will have to be flown in. And if that happens, who goes home? Wilkinson? Not if there is the faintest possibility of him playing at the business end of the competition. There will have to be a fall-guy if Toby Flood or Charlie Hodgson are added to the squad.
The Wilkinson issue dominated the day's proceedings, to the extent that England's opening match against the United States in Lens on Saturday was relegated to the back burner, and then removed from the hotplate altogether. Shaun Perry, the Bristol scrum-half, had to wait a considerable amount of time before being asked about the Americans. The initial questions were about his two half-back partners – the injured one, and the fit one.
"There will be two or three technical tweaks because of the change at No 10, but nothing major," Perry said. "Certainly, there will be no effect on our defensive structure. Are we still confident of doing a professional job this weekend? Of course. Olly is a great player, playing well. He bosses the forwards, he runs the backs, he communicates really well. We spent some time together in the game against France at Twickenham last month, and I thought we developed an understanding.
"I really don't believe Jonny's injury will affect our self-belief. He's a legend, we all know that," said Perry.
"There's no point hiding the fact that he has a presence about him, and when players go down injured so close to a big match you can't help having an 'oh my god' moment.
"But it's not just him, is it? We saw poor David Strettle miss out on the entire tournament because of an innocuous injury. You don't want any player to suffer that kind of misfortune. In the end, you have to trust the depth in your squad and move on."
And the States? "We need the confidence that a win would give us," Perry said. "We want to win this game in a certain way, which involves taking things from the training field on to the pitch and making them work for us. I believe we're ready. Speaking purely personally, I can't get past the point of thinking that this is a dream come true."
The tournament certainly has a place in the dreams of the host nation. Bernard Lapasset, the president of the French Rugby Federation, spent yesterday waxing lyrical about the competition's potential impact over the next seven weeks, telling his audience: "We want to mobilise the general population," he said.
"We want France to leave its print on World Cup history. We are working to create a magic between the players and the public, and to create new conditions in which rugby can be developed all over the world, especially in Latin countries."
Given Wilkinson's stature in the international game, the magic would come more easily if he were on the pitch. Whether he makes it is in the lap of the sporting gods – gods who were unusually kind to him four years ago, but have been vicious towards him ever since.