Revamped England ready to blitz France
Auckland, North Island
An old yarn about Ian Botham has been much in mind as one soaks up the atmosphere in town during the final few days before England's World Cup quarter-final battle with France.
In the tale, Botham is in his dotage, saggy of rump and multiple of chin. He is bowling to Australia during the Ashes of 1989, trundling in, all with crimson-faced effort but delivering nothing more than a succession of docile dibbly-dobblers miles wide of off stump.
At tea, the Aussie batsmen return to the dressing-room, shaking their heads in disbelief.
"What's Botham doing?" asks one of their team-mates.
"It's even worse than we thought," replies the batsman. "He's bowling these unbelievable mystery balls. They look just like slow wide ones, but we all know they can't be. It's terrifying..."
Something similar seems to be happening with the England rugby team here in New Zealand.
A succession of uninspired, ugly performances so far in this World Cup should have the locals sniggering their socks off, dismissing both England's ponderous style and their chances of winning back the William Webb-Ellis trophy they claimed over the Tasman eight years ago.
Instead, the exact opposite is happening.
Jonny Wilkinson (right) and Toby Flood (centre) have both been selected to start against France. Photo: Getty
"Classic England," one wise judge told me. "They're so, so good at knockout rugby. They're doing it to perfection again."
"It's just the same as 2003 and 2007," said another, "so impressive. I guarantee they will make the final."
In this strange and paranoid parallel universe, England's very failure to get out of second gear is seen as clear evidence that they are in fact roaring along in fifth. By winning in such narrow, nerve-wracking fashion against Argentina and Scotland, they seem to have proved their cup-winning credentials far better than if they had breezed through with a truckload of tries.
It's a curious way of looking at things. Only in sport could logic be so readily suspended. No-one squeaks a D-grade pass in their mock GCSEs and takes it to mean that an A-star is therefore guaranteed when it really matters.
It is also exactly the same for England's opponents.
All week, Martin Johnson's players have lined up to tell us that France's woeful form in the pool stages perversely means they will play out of their skin on Saturday. Divisions in the camp? Coach at war with his players? Perfect preparation for Les Bleus.
"They'll be like a wounded animal," said Ben Foden.
"It might look like disarray," added Toby Flood, "but I've been in teams like that, and it can be a very powerful tool."
Mystery balls or not, do not expect England to change their methods now. Johnson's team selection on Thursday spoke of two things: boot and brawn.
After a week of debate about Wilkinson versus Flood, he has gone for both. If Mike Tindall's dead leg made the decision easier for him, creating a berth at centre for the Leicester man, it opens up kicking options lacking in previous partnerships and also mirrors Clive Woodward's decision to pick Mike Catt in place of Tindall for the World Cup semi-final against France in 2003.
Which one of the two will take place-kicking duties? "You'll have to wait till Saturday," Johnson replied, relishing the chance to tease.
Despite prop Matt Stevens' poor game against Scotland, and France coach Marc Lievremont's selection of the mighty Nicolas Mas opposite him, Johnson has resisted the chance to let Alex Corbisiero build on his impressive displays as a replacement with a start.
Tom Palmer's recall in the second row makes logical sense, not just for his own impact off the bench last week but for his role in England's championship-winning performances in this spring's Six Nations.
Whether Courtney Lawes should have been the man to give way, rather than Louis Deacon, is somewhat less certain.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the demotion of James Haskell - ever-present in the tournament so far, recently up to his neck in all things French, playing club rugby at Stade Francais - in favour of the doughty, durable Nick Easter.
Martin Johnson was the centre of attention as he faced a scrum from the gathered media. Photo: Getty
"It was a particularly hard call and I said that in front of the team," admitted Johnson. "He didn't deserve it the way he has played. But he will still have a massive impact on the match - everyone wants to start but your role is no less coming off the bench."
Easter will offer experience, nous and a sense of calm. He might also help bring back a sense of enjoyment to a squad that has sometimes appeared to have all the fun tabloided out of them.
Sporting a new Zapata-style moustache, these were Easter's responses to supposedly serious questions in Thursday's media scrum at the team hotel:
How's the injured back?
"They told me my back was in great condition for a rugby player. Not for a normal citizen though."
Did your bungee-jump in Queenstown make it worse?
"It was close to the best five seconds of my life. I won't mention what beats it."
What will the battle at the breakdown feel like?
"Enormous amounts of pain."
As well as a laconic interviewee, Easter is a rugby pragmatist.
"It's not going to come down to moments of magic or something spectacular," he said.
"There will be bone-crunching tackles, and it's going to be physical at the scrum and breakdown. We've gone for a five-two split with the forwards (on the replacements' bench) because we know that big games are won there, and no more so against the French.
"There's added spice with all the history, let alone all the rugby history. We know a lot about each other, and you don't want to be the one who lets the other guy get one over on you."
What England have promised is a blitz from the blocks on Saturday night, an opening as dynamic and aggressive as the first quarter against Scotland was feeble.
"What we must do against France is say: 'For 20 minutes, this is massive', " Flood stated.
"Our starts have been poor. We as a squad need to deal with that and say, 'Our starts have been rubbish but if we get it right here then, hopefully, we'll remove any resistance we're going to have'.
"You can't go around saying, 'At 60 minutes our fitness is going to tell'. We might not be in the game after 60 minutes. We have to understand that we blitz them from minute one."
In England's last three big matches against the French on foreign soil, that's exactly what they managed to do.
Josh Lewsey's try after just two minutes set the tone for the World Cup semi-final triumph of 2007; Paul Sackey's try on five minutes did the same in the Six Nations win the following year, and Foden's slide into the corner in March 2010 set up England's best display of the tournament.
There are other encouraging omens, if you know where to look.
England have reached this stage of the competition having conceded just a solitary try, a more parsimonious record than any of the other quarter-finalists.
As Easter pointed out, they are unbeaten, and no team has ever gone on to win a World Cup having lost a pool game. And - if you don't mind stretching things a little - they haven't lost a World Cup knockout game to a northern hemisphere side in 24 years.
Then there is 2007. At the same point four years ago England looked doomed - battered 36-0 by South Africa, drawn against a rampaging Wallabies in a quarter-final no-one could see them winning.
And we all know what happened next.