- 25 Sep 07, 07:39 PM
Versailles - England may still, in the words of Brian Ashton, be “looking down the barrel of a gun” as they prepare to face World Cup shock troops Tonga this week.
But if the world champions remain in do-or-die mode after their victory over Samoa, at least they now give the impression of enjoying their dice with death.
Ashton certainly seemed in jovial mood as he announced his team on Tuesday for Friday’s crunch clash with their latest Pacific Island opposition.
“The England team,” he began, “to play Tonga on Friday is…Jesus it’s cold…” before breaking off and nodding his head towards the open door of the Moliere Room at the team’s Versailles hotel that he had just walked through.
Before it could be shut and Ashton could resume, one wag amongst the assembled press corps piped up: “You must be in trouble if you’ve Jesus at full-back.”
“Got half a chance of winning then,” Ashton quipped, quick as a flash, to widespread laughter before getting onto business.
And he did have something significant to announce. He’d just decided not to pick the player he’d appointed as his World Cup captain even though he was available.
Hello, we thought, this could be interesting.
There may have been very valid reasons for retaining the in-form Matt Stevens at tight-head prop, but it still appeared a big call to leave Phil Vickery, available again after his two-match suspension, on the bench.
Was Vickery, Ashton was asked, paying an extra price for his indiscipline in getting banned in the first place? “I’d like to think I am a bit more humanitarian than that,” he replied.
Did Matt Stevens give the team something perhaps that Vickery did not? “I am not sure he gives us a lot that Phil doesn’t,” Ashton continued, before going on to praise Stevens’ scrummaging and “impact around the field”.
“I suspect Phil is not the happiest man in this World Cup, but you take your punishment and have to live through it. He is fit and raring to go and I am sure he will have a role to play on Friday.”
So there. It was not a captaincy issue, Ashton insisted. He had not suddenly decided Martin Corry, who he relieved of the captaincy on his appointment, might be a better bet to lead the side.
It was merely that Vickery has not played since the USA game on 8 September, which given the course of England’s campaign to date, seems a lifetime ago.
Ashton acknowledged as much himself, when the subject of how much he was enjoying the different atmosphere after the win over Samoa, rather than the air of gloom that descended on the squad after their Springboks’ humbling.
“How long have we been here?” he asked. “It seems like two-and-a-half years!”
“There have certainly been lighter moments but some pretty dark moments as well. I wouldn’t say I am in any better humour today than I was this time last week, but I am looking forward to Friday evening.”
Indeed, after the potential peril of the Samoan fixture, the England squad give every impression that they quite fancy the similarly hazardous mission awaiting them this Friday.
While reports have floated of disagreements at management level, and clear-the-air meetings followed the South Africa game, the spirit and unity in the squad appears good, a determination to right the wrongs of that experience still strong.
And owing to injuries and England’s poor form in their opening two matches, it is a squad in which every member of the original 30 (Toby Flood being the exception) will have had some game-time by the end of Friday’s match, providing hooker Lee Mears makes an entrance off the bench.
Whether that is a good thing is open to question, but at least collective responsibility cannot be avoided.
If Tonga do pull the trigger on England’s reign as world champions, no-one will be able to say they didn’t have a chance to dodge the bullets.
Bryn Palmer is the BBC Sport website’s rugby union editor.