- 15 Sep 07, 06:30 AM
In the country where the guillotine was the preferred method for dispensing with the great and not so good, England’s stay of execution at this World Cup could be brief.
Eight days to be precise, in which they must somehow lift themselves from the pit of despair into which Friday’s savaging by the Springboks has sunk them, and find a way of beating Samoa in a likely winner-goes-through clash in Nantes next Saturday.
No easy task on the basis of what we have seen so far from Brian Ashton’s men, whose much-talked-about potential remains firmly unlocked.
Failure to beat the Pacific Islanders would in all probability see them become the first world champions not to reach at least the quarter-finals in the defence of their trophy.
An ignominious prospect, and Friday’s record beating for any England team at a World Cup does not look too hot on the CV either.
They limped back to their Versailles retreat for two days of “recovery” – and a further dose of soul searching no doubt – having again failed to match words with deeds.
And yet the 40,000-odd England fans who paid top euro to witness this remorseless rout were magnificent, roaring their ailing team on at the slightest hint of encouragement even when it was clear the game was up by half-time.
The French ministry for foreign affairs has produced a “French survival kit” for English-speaking fans at this World Cup called “Oui je parle rugby”.
A couple of its phrases could come in particularly handy for those red rose supporters who needed a demie or three as they retreated from the Stade de France, wondering just how their team has fallen so fast down rugby’s world order: “Ou dois-je descendre?”(Where do I get off?) and “J’ai la gueule de bois” (I have a hangover).
A few defiant bursts of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” could be heard in the first half-hour, when England were only 10-0 down and a fumbled try by Jaque Fourie and three missed drop-goals conspired to keep South Africa scoreless for 25 minutes.
But once Matt Stevens gave Percy Montgomery a needless penalty and the sensational Fourie du Preez sent JP Pietersen over for his first try just before the interval, an air of resignation hung over proceedings.
Early in the second half, a brass band of English supporters piped up with a chorus of “Those were the days, my friend”, which seemed an apt lament for 2003 and all that.
The Springboks were dominating field position with the tactical kicking of Du Preez, Francois Steyn, Butch James and Montgomery, and England could barely get out of their own half.
A brief, encouraging spell ended when lock Ben Kay opted to try a delicate chip-kick with his left foot 10m from the line with a man outside him, and a late half-chance petered out when Andy Farrell off-loaded desperately into the arms of Montgomery.
The one spark of hope was Jason Robinson, who showed tremendous courage under the high ball and a splash of the old razzamatazz when running it back at the Boks.
If what appeared a torn hamstring when he pulled up in agony in the second half proves his final act of this World Cup, and his England career, at least “Billy Whizz” can say he gave it his all, and stayed true to his great virtues as a rugby player.
If the rest of the side can say the same after the Samoa game, then England might still be in the tournament, and contemplating a quarter-final with Australia or Wales.
But the loser of Saturday’s pool tussle in Cardiff will not be expected to progress further in this World Cup.
Amidst the gloom of England’s display came the welcome sight of a realistic alternative to New Zealand as potential winners.
South Africa did not have to reach top gear, but the clinical, composed manner in which they dispatched their main pool rivals suggested that here is a team that can not only challenge the All Blacks, but has the belief and confidence to beat them.
Bryn Palmer is the BBC Sport website’s rugby union editor.