- 13 Sep 07, 02:49 PM
Paris - By rights, Brian Ashton should have been born on Friday the 13th, and spent his childhood treading on cracks pavement and playing hide and seek under ladders, before going on to strangle every black cat in the neighbourhood.
If any man could be the exception that proves the rule about sportsmen making their own luck, it is the England coach.
As a player, Ashton was denied a cap when family illness curtailed his tour of Australia with England in 1975. As assistant coach, he was denied a World Cup winner's medal when domestic problems contributed to his withdrawal from the England set-up in 2002.
As head coach, the slings and arrows keep raining down on the former schoolmaster. It seemed bad enough when preparations for each of his five previous internationals in charge of England were affected by injuries, illnesses and late withdrawals.
Now, in the build-up to easily the most important match in his tenure - Friday evening's Stade de France showdown against South Africa - he has lost not one fly-half but two, had to pick two scrum-halves on the bench and seen his captain suspended for foul play.
As Ashton contemplates a side led by a man he sacked as captain only eight months ago, with two World Cup winners so far out of form that they cannot even find a place on the bench, he must surely be starting to wonder whether the gods have got it in for him.
The South Africans certainly have. They have targeted this match ever since the draw was made. They want revenge for defeat at the same stage four years ago. They want a repeat of the extraordinary victory they engineered here in France in the quarter-final eight years ago.
And nobody is betting against them. The odds for a match between two senior IRB countries are the most lopsided I can remember with England available at 6-1 while the Springboks are odds-on.
Victory for England would - even including the opening day win for Argentina against France - be the biggest upset of this Rugby World Cup.
Of course, England can beat South Africa. But they will need to play a whole lot better than they have in any of their last half a dozen matches. They will have to get on the front foot, and stay there. Every pass, every tackle, every attack, every thought will have to be precise, clear and error–free.
They will have to find a way to outwit the South African line-out jumpers, outmuscle the Springbok back row and shackle Bryan Habana.
The players have the determination to do so. The supporters have the hope that they will.
But most of all, England need the luck to go their way.
Alastair Hignell is a former England rugby international who commentates on rugby union for Radio 5 Live. He is covering England at the World Cup. 5 Live's full broadcast schedule is here.