- 16 Sep 07, 04:06 PM
Versailles - Hallelujah, the fog appears to have lifted.
If England’s displays over the last few weeks and months were not evidence enough, then Friday’s 36-0 humbling by the Springboks seems to have done the trick.
Those inside the camp have finally admitted the reality: England no longer have any world-class players.
Not my observation, but that of assistant coach Mike Ford, England’s defence specialist.
As the post mortem into Friday’s rout continued at their Versailles base, Ford’s honest appraisal of the difference between the teams was striking.
“I don’t think South Africa did anything really special, apart from an excellent kicking game,” he noted. “Plus they have got one or two world-class players and (scrum-half) Fourie du Preez was a massive, massive difference. He saw three opportunities, and they scored three tries from them.
“We were disappointed with our game management and understanding of the game. But we are where we are with some of the players we have got. No disrespect to anybody but we just haven’t got those sort of world-class players in our team.”
Such a candid observation before the tournament might have served to deflate the expectations of the more wildly optimistic red rose fans, that England would miraculously stumble onto an elusive magic formula and re-create the spirit of 2003.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realise it then, but the upbeat pre-tournament predictions from Brian Ashton and the squad did nothing to deflate such hopes, insisting that ‘we might surprise a few people yet’.
As Ford also noted, however, any side with pretentions of winning the World Cup generally has half-a-dozen players who are the best in their positions in the world.
“In 2003 we probably had six or seven players who would probably have got in a world XV,” Ford said, perhaps mentally reeling off Martin Johnson, Richard Hill, Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back, Jonny Wilkinson, Jason Robinson.
He could equally have been thinking of Steve Thompson, Phil Vickery, or maybe Matt Dawson, Will Greenwood?
Ah, you might counter, but four of those mentioned are still involved now aren’t they?
True, but Robinson’s performance the other night aside, when was the last time we saw a world-class performance from any of Dallaglio (dropped for the Boks game), Vickery (suspended) or even Wilkinson (injured again) - the latter's dramatic comeback against Scotland in February notwithstanding?
“I am not sure how many we would get in now,” Ford added. “I am not saying ours are not great players, it is just that other teams have overtaken us.”
Such candid talk is welcome. It is not, as some sports people seem to think, a bad thing to admit that everything is not hunky dory.
England’s problems at this World Cup are not just of the current squad’s making. As documented previously, four years of poor planning, selection and stagnation bring inevitable results.
“The problem is we are still finding out about players in this World Cup,” Ford went on. “We obviously think we get selection right for every game, but as a game unfolds, we are still finding out about players, when they are performing under intense pressure in front of 70,000 people, that maybe we didn’t know before.
“In 2003 they weren’t doing selection at the World Cup. They knew their best side before – probably a year before. We are not in that position. We are finding out things about players all the time. We think we are going to pick the best 15 to play Samoa, but we are still looking during games to see what the players can do.”
So who will play against Samoa? The team is now due to be announced on Tuesday, but we know Brian Ashton will have to make at least two changes.
Jason Robinson, despite the upbeat assessment that his World Cup is not over yet, is highly unlikely to play against Samoa.
So who plays full-back? Mathew Tait, who came on to replace him against South Africa? The 21-year-old was brought as cover for the position, but has not looked comfortable, particularly in the kicking department, in his few brief outings here to date.
Tait is also a candidate to replace club-mate Jamie Noon at outside centre, where Dan Hipkiss, and whoever is called up to replace Noon, will also come into the equation.
Mark Cueto? Ashton dropped his original choice at full-back after the USA game, citing the Sale player’s struggle to recapture his best form after a recent injury.
It is difficult to believe he has found it in training meantime, although perhaps a return to his old wing position might do the trick?
That could even free up Josh Lewsey for the number 15 jersey, although that would also fly in the face of Ashton’s policy of selecting players in what he considers their best position.
Paul Sackey and Shaun Perry may have been two of the players Ford was referring to in terms of "finding out about players". Neither covered themselves in glory against the Boks, and are obvious candidates for demotion.
Assuming Wilkinson is fit, one assumes he will return at fly-half, with Olly Barkley possibly contesting the number 12 shirt with Mike Catt and Andy Farrell.
Up front, potential changes are not so evident. The front row are likely to be retained en bloc. Would Steve Borthwick add anything to the second-row mix?
Martin Corry could also be moved to lock, if the coaches decide Joe Worsley’s aggressive defence will help counteract the Samoans’ dangerous off-loading game.
Whoever is playing, a welcome dose of realism appears to have invaded Camp England, if it wasn’t there already in private.
“We have been talking the talk for a while now, haven’t we?” Ford added. “Now we have to walk the walk, or we are going home.”
Bryn Palmer is the BBC Sport website’s rugby union editor.