- 4 Sep 07, 04:26 PM
Incroyable. Day one of England’s World Cup proper, and Jonny’s crocked already.
Plus ca change, mes amis, plus ca change. Brian Ashton tried to put a brave face on it, but he hardly gave the appearance of a man who said he had given up worrying about what might happen to players for fear he might lose what hair he had left.
“You just get on with it,” said the head coach, by which he presumably meant being as defensive as possible about every question asked about the subject.
"We have picked a 15 we think will do a job against America. Jonny was in it originally, he is not now. We will just move on from there.”
Except after such a bombshell development on the team’s first day of training, he was hardly likely to be allowed to do that.
Asked if this was his strongest team, which he had been hoping to play together for some weeks, he replied simply: “This is our strongest team to play America.”
The same mantra – give or take the odd “best equipped” or “best combination” - was repeated when he was asked to expand on the selection of Lawrence Dallaglio over Nick Easter at number eight, or the choice of Mike Catt and Jamie Noon as centres.
Reluctant to talk about individuals, or speculate on what the possible absence of Wilkinson might mean for the crucial South Africa match next up, Ashton opted for a state-the-bleedin’-obvious approach when assessing his priorities for the USA game.
“One - we want to win. Two - a good performance. Three - no-one injured. That is it.”
Fair enough, you might think, what more is there to be said, in all honesty?
Except that England spent most of the last World Cup under siege from the media, and one might have thought an open exchange with the assembled masses might have made an already negative story – Wilkinson’s injury – a little more PR-friendly.
After some words of welcome from Pierre Bedier, the president of the local Versailles administration, Ashton had bravely opened with a spot of French to thank his hosts.
“Je voudrais remercier le president…pour le hospitalite magnifique” he said, at which point Josh Lewsey and Phil Vickery, sitting alongside him, cracked up laughing.
But having apologised for his “francais tres fatigue”, Ashton appeared to lose patience when the England team liaison officer suggested a few words from Etienne Pinte, the deputy mayor of Versailles, interjecting: “Can I name the team now?”
Thereafter there was only one subject on the agenda. It wasn’t quite the ‘us against the world” bunker mentality adopted by the 2003 squad, but already the signs are this could be another long, testing campaign.
Earlier on Tuesday, I opted to take up the invitation to see the squad train, albeit for the 20 minutes allocated to the media.
Those used to Sir Clive Woodward’s paranoia about spies in the camp will be delighted to know it still requires plenty of determination, not to mention good humour, to do so, even when the session is nominally “open”.
First of all we had to find the ground. Easier said than done, when you turn up at the designated one - in the suburb of Porchefontaine, a short hop on the train from Versailles - to find the squad are actually training somewhere else.
An innocent error by England’s media minders, or a deliberate attempt to throw us off the scent? The conspiracy theorists were in full swing already.
Having stumbled into a couple of English newspaper correspondents similarly non-plussed at this wild goose chase, your intrepid reporter pounded the streets for another half-hour before finally locating a small side road leading up a hill to the Stade Montbauron, home of the local Versailles team.
First there was a police checkpoint stopping us to ask us for official identification (just as well I had the old BBC pass with me).
Then, at the stadium entrance, half a dozen gendarmes, hanging about looking bored as gendarmes do, approached, looking for more ID.
Once inside, several more security types, all wearing sinister-looking sunglasses, were similarly moved to ask us who we were and why we were there.
Why, to see the England team train of course! Except they never do any real training while you’re there.
A few stretches, a few one-on-one wrestling exercises (Josh Lewsey appeared to have drawn the short straw with Andrew Sheridan), a few rounds of hitting tackle bags, while a dozen photographers and two camera crews got a few up-to-date shots.
The squad then split into two groups – “the Marseille 15”, who did some work with forwards coach John Wells - and the rest, who performed some defensive drills with Graham Rowntree, the former England prop now part of the national coaching set-up.
And that was about it. Watches were conspicuously consulted. Our time was up, and we were quietly ushered towards the exit.
Except of course, about half an hour after we left, some bloke called Wilkinson turned his ankle over, and the world champions, who liked to think they had crept into France “under the radar”, were very much back on everyone’s.
Bryn Palmer is the BBC Sport website’s rugby union editor.