England pack on war footing
When it comes to pre-tournament squad announcements, it is sometimes best not to spring to judgement and instead take a deep breath and summon the words of Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking: "How can you lie there and think of England when you don't even know who's in the team?"
When Martin Johnson named his 30 for the tournament in New Zealand, much of the criticism - and it came thick and fierce - centred on an apparent lack of flair and guile in the three-quarters, with Shontayne Hape seemingly a shoo-in at inside-centre alongside the equally one-dimensional Mike Tindall. Meanwhile, Bath battering ram Matt Banahan was apparently one injury away from making the starting XV. As one wag put it, their combined turning circles would rival the Eddie Stobart fleet.
What a difference a couple of warm-up matches make. Livewire displays from the 20-year-old Manu Tuilagi, who scored tries against Wales and Ireland, and Delon Armitage, in from the cold after missing the Six Nations because of a ban, mean rapiers outnumber cudgels in the England back-line for their World Cup opener against Argentina on Saturday. In the case of Tuilagi, you could say he goes into battle with one in each hand.
Three of England's back talents, Manu Tuilagi, Delon Armitage and Ben Foden prepare for Argentina. Photo: Getty
Indeed, with Jonny Wilkinson picked ahead of Toby Flood at fly-half - something no England opponents want to see, which makes it the correct decision - England now appear to have most angles covered behind the scrum: not exactly a back-line of all the talents, but solid-enough in defence and canny-enough to spot mistakes and land with a counter-punch.
That said, England boss Martin Johnson could be forgiven for looking somewhat baffled that most of the pre-match interest surrounded his decision to replace the injured Mark Cueto with Armitage. He did not actually say it, but you could imagine the thought bubble above his head: "Not sure why you're all that bothered, Delon will hardly touch the ball anyway."
Argentina's forwards are as tough as dry beef and every bit as difficult to chew on, which is why members of England's pack seemed so alive to the threat. "They're going to be full-on from the start but we're going to match them and we're going to beat them and that's all there is to it - we have to," said Courtney Lawes. "I don't mind a scuffle every now and again," added the Northampton lock, before falling back into line and extolling the importance of discipline.
"That will certainly be at the forefront of everyone's mind, what's going to be coming at them from the start," said number eight Nick Easter. "We've got to match that intensity." Added prop Dan Cole: "They bring a lot of passion and experience to the game which we've got to match, if not top. As you saw when they beat France four years ago, you come unstuck if you don't match them for passion."
For many in the Argentine pack, which is not much different from the one that led the Pumas to third-place at the 2007 World Cup, New Zealand represents one last hurrah and victory over England could mean avoiding the All Blacks in the quarter-finals. Which is why Mario Ledesma, Rodrigo Roncero and Co will come at their England counterparts like iron filings to a particularly powerful magnet.
"I suppose it makes it a bit easier for me if I know they're going to try and run over me instead of round me," said Lawes, smilingly realistic. Armitage, meanwhile, was talking about him and his mates "expressing" themselves out in the backs. Sorry, Delon, but prepare yourself for an aerial shelling: very much a case of "express this..."
The Otago Stadium dominates the skyline of scenic Dunedin. Photo: Getty
My cab driver from Dunedin airport might have sounded a bit like Lara Bingle from those Tourism Australia ads - "So where the bloody hell are ya?" - were it not for the fact he was a middle-aged Brummie and had a face that resembled an old-fashioned, tan leather rugby ball. Flaccid.
Dunedin is often described as "unhurried" - a city of 110,000 souls, my cabbie conceded it had not altered much in the 40 years he has been here - but you might have thought the Rugby World Cup would stick a rocket up its backside and put a spring in its step.
But, as yet, the expected invasion of England and Argentina fans has yet to take place and Dunedin is as Dunedin always was - "generous to explorers who are after something a little less intense", or so says my pristine edition of the Lonely Planet.
That is not to say there is not a mild hum about the place. The very nice lady who runs the guesthouse where I am staying greeted me with the words "you Poms have got no chance", while our cabbie friend regaled me with the following story which wonderfully sums up the relationship New Zealanders have with their national sport.
"I picked this old woman up from the hospital a few months back and she told me her old man had just had his leg amputated," said our cabbie. "Obviously, I didn't really know what to say. But before I could muster a 'blimey, very sorry to hear that', she came back with: 'what do you think about the Highlanders' new strip? I think it's a disgrace...'"