Bryn Palmer

Wilko woe puts England on defensive (29)


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.

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 05:56 PM on 04 Sep 2007,
  • Steve Ebbrell wrote:

Is this boy ever not injured? What are the stats on how many games/minutes he's played in the four years since that glorious evening in Sydney? Can't be much. Seriously, he's injured more than Michael Owen!

  • 2.
  • At 06:04 PM on 04 Sep 2007,
  • Matt B wrote:

I have to agree with some of the comments on other posts about this being an England-centric blog so far.

I am well aware they are the current world champions but the world cup is not just about England and, more to the point, nor is the BBC who should be covering the preparations of Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well.

Arguabley, Ireland have a better chance of winning than England do anyway!

It is just pointless celebrity obsession. I don't think England were much worse if at all in the Six Nations without Wilkinson.

I admire Johnny Wilkinson as much as any UK sportsman but the cult of 'Johnny', 'Stevie', 'Becksy' et al kills our sport. We try to make team games all about individuals and it is pathetic.

England are a poor team (relative to 4 years ago) with 'Johnny' and without him. Probably our best option against better teams but not overwhelmingly so.

Indeed it must kill back ups and reserves that they are so slaughter by the press in this indirect manner. Hardly sends them out looking to perform positively does it?

  • 4.
  • At 06:39 PM on 04 Sep 2007,
  • Hotspur7 wrote:

What did you expect Ashton to say? "Well, I've weighed it up and I've decided that Easter is too slow, so Dallaglio, even though he's creaking at the seams, has just got the nod".
This tournament will require sophisticated man-management of elite athletes under considerable pressure over, hopefully, a month. The last thing that the England team need is a media onslought with every journalist desperate for a sniff of "a story" that earns him/her browny points from the boss.
Nobody, outside of the media bubble, is interested in this obsession of placing a thousand different "angles" on a "story".
What rugby supporters (in my experience usualy pretty savvy people) want is a simple objective reporting of facts. We can then make our own mind up about the weight of those facts.
This goes for the BBC as much as for the tabloids - no unnecessary distractions for the team please, this is serious business.

  • 5.
  • At 07:08 PM on 04 Sep 2007,
  • Paul Mycroft wrote:

Why would the England captain and Josh Lewsey "crack up laughing" when their coach attempts to speak the native language of the country they are in?

Is it funny to try and speak another language?

Vickery should know better.

Good for Ashton.

  • 6.
  • At 09:13 PM on 04 Sep 2007,
  • Prestwick wrote:

God, can we please all stop moaning about everything for once in our lives. This is a comment form for a blog not a customer feedback form for First Great Western!

Seriously, if you're going to talk about rugby then, please, by all means, go on. But if all the people who read this blog are going to talk about is pretentious pig-ignorant and irrevelent psuedo-political PC rubbish then there is a time and a place for that and its called the "have your say" section, or, as I like to call it, "Nursery School".

  • 7.
  • At 09:28 PM on 04 Sep 2007,
  • Jill Tulman wrote:

Versailles being in the Yvelines department, our county rugby committee,of which I am a member, is involved in trying to get your team members involved with us. For example, we've heard rumors of being able to take our mini players to some of the practices; unfortunately they're scheduled during school hours. We shall see. However, everyone knows the practices are taking place at Montbaron.

  • 8.
  • At 10:25 PM on 04 Sep 2007,
  • Tony wrote:

Tough news on Jonny, but maybe it's for the best. Probably doesn't need to go down during the match, best rested.

Funny thing, rest. I'm watching the Irish prep, and really worried that the team have been wrapped up in too much cotton wool...the Leinster and Munster folks have hardly played a game in anger in five months...

While the best England XV could probably put in a respectable defence, and therefore there's a concern about losing key players, similarly the best Irish XV, on form and fit, could seriously rattle the AB's, if not beat them, as well as the French on home soil.

However - everyone's been saying it - the first XV is just about where it's at. The second string got walloped twice by the Argies in the Summer.

Anyway, on the point - you're afraid of injuries, so you wrap players in cotton wool - maybe it's not such a good thing. No fear.

I'm just afraid the fear of failure - for both England and Ireland - could result in an abysmal defence for England, and/or a massive anti-climax for the aspirational Irish.

  • 9.
  • At 10:34 PM on 04 Sep 2007,
  • Ian Campbell wrote:

When referring to the English Team, reporters and commentators almost invariably use the term "World Champions England", or words to that effect.

England did win the World Cup in 2003. Deservedly so.

But to use a phrase that implies that we are still "World Champions" is an embarrasment and must surely have an inhibiting effect on the current English players.

Why not "England, Cup Winners in 2003". or "England, Former Cup Winners", or something along those lines?

  • 10.
  • At 11:30 PM on 04 Sep 2007,
  • Ray_Liotta wrote:

Well, after reading some of the comments on 606 (and then realising that 606 is like an off-licence and has opening hours (hilarious when you think about the internet these days, and I realise that's brackets inside brackets so I'll have to do 2 sets fairly soon), phew) - Anyway, personally, as an Ireland supporter, I do not underrate England for a second. End of. I think they are in a prime position to upset the apple-cart BIGTIME. If the ball bounces their way they will uncover how world champions play - and I sincerely believe they could surprise even themselves. Big odds at the bookies, I agree, 36 to 1, at my last check, seems crazy- but you'd be foolish not to put a tenner on these nutcases to pull it off.

  • 11.
  • At 02:44 AM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • Ross Murray wrote:

Ian Campbell - I can't work out why you have such issues with the way the 'arrogant' English media describes the England team. I certainly don't think it should influence the team negatively, but maybe they should call them 'defending world champions' to make everyone happy. When you look back at other events, the previous winners of the tournament are always referred to as "World Champions" or "Defending Champions", because in theory, until the World Cup final is played, they are still the holders. Its not just the England rugby team, Brazil were referred to as "defending champions" in 2006, France in Euro 2004 Roger Federer is referred to as "defending champion" this year at Wimbledon. Schumacher was always referred to as "World Champion"...and yet nobody seemed to have a problem with any of this, I wonder why!

  • 12.
  • At 05:37 AM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • Tony Murray wrote:

Do you think Percy Montgomery has an English granny? If so, it might be worth Brian having a quiet word to see if he wants to change camps. England badly need someone who can get points with the boot. If Jonny is out, I don't fancy England's chances with Olly.

  • 13.
  • At 07:40 AM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • Mike Towl wrote:

So, the BEEB's anti- England rhetoric has started already. Is it sour grapes because because ITV has the coverage and is using SKY commentators? Or perhaps your Australian or maybe even Welsh (Bryn????)

  • 14.
  • At 08:38 AM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • alfie noakes the 2nd. wrote:

can't wait for it all to kick off. as a proud englishman i will take what ever is thrown at us without the expected whine and moan. if we go out so be it, and then i will focus my support on the the other home nations, always have and always will. shame that our celtic friends can't bring themselves to offer us a little cheer.

p.s. a penguin goes into a crowded french bar looking rather flustered he asks the barman if he has seen his brother.

the barman says "no but i will look out for him, what does he look like?"

allez le blanc.

  • 15.
  • At 10:13 AM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • Stewart MItchell wrote:

Mr Campbell

People refer to England as World Champions because that is what they remain, and will do so until after the final, whether England are in it or not.

While I'm on it, will the people who keep writing that "England are looking to be the first team to defend the title" desist. England will defend the title, they just won't retain it.

  • 16.
  • At 11:00 AM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • Criticulus wrote:

English rugby, like football and cricket,has some good individuals.
Playing to their strengths together as a team is more elusive.

Let's stop the moaning, complaining about injuries, boasting about a few matches played four years ago and ask this group of players to entertain us with some strong, positive RUGBY to the best of their team ability!

PS- Is anyone really surprised by the 'boy wonder's ' latest injury?

  • 17.
  • At 11:26 AM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • Bryn Palmer wrote:

Many thanks for all your responses so far.

Steve Ebbrell asked how many games Jonny has played since the last World Cup. I can’t give you exact figures for his club Newcastle, but I can tell you he missed the next 30 Tests (England lost 18 of them) after 2003, and has missed 33 (lost 20) of the 40 they have played in total since their Sydney triumph. He has played seven Tests this year since his return to action, England winning three and losing four.

It seems some feel this blog is too England-centric, and that others feel it is anti-English!

To those you think the former, all I’d say is that England were the first of the home unions to arrive in France, and now Wales, Scotland and Ireland are either here or on their way, we hope to have regular contributions from the 5live reporters with the Celtic nations. I am based in Paris, where England are, but my colleagues Tom and Ben, who are travelling around in a camper van, will be giving you a flavour of what’s happening with the other home nations in Nantes, Bordeaux, St Etienne etc.

To those who think my piece was somehow anti-English, all I’m trying to do is give you a flavour of what the atmosphere is like in the England camp during this World Cup, from observing the players and coaches at close quarters. There were plenty of journalists at England’s media conference on Tuesday who felt Brian Ashton looked rather ill at ease and was somewhat taciturn in his responses.

But as someone else pointed out, it doesn’t really matter want we and the rest of the media think, ultimately. If England win all their games, I am sure their supporters won’t care a jot!

  • 18.
  • At 12:03 PM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • Alan Walkey wrote:

brian Ashton inherited a somewhat poisened chalice when he became England coach. An ageing team losing more games than it won and playing dull, predictable rugby.few new players had been blooded and in his selection he has clearly prized expereince above all else. however if Wilkinson's injury proves to be serious he may have dented the squads chances before the campaign starts. Without selecting another top quality stand off their already slender chances of a successful tournamnet are looking even slimmer. Surely Toby Flood has shown enough quality in the last 12 months to merit a place in the final 30? For me, Olly Barkely has not shown the ability to control a game of international rugby, just think back to the first warm up test V france. It is a selection that may come back to haunt Ashton sooner rather than later.

  • 19.
  • At 12:10 PM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • Benjy wrote:

To Matt B:
1) This article, although nominally about the England team, could hardly be accused of being pro-England.
2) England accounts for about 84% of the UK's population. Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland get way more BBC time and coverage than the roughly 16% proportion of the UK population would suggest was equitable.
So talk of being 'England-centric' is rubbish.

  • 20.
  • At 12:25 PM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • Wag wrote:

Don`t get me wrong, I like Jonny but has any one noticed what a lot of words he uses in interviews that are not necessary? He does go on a bit. And when are we gonna realise he is so injury prone that for his own sake and us fans saks lets just not bother to pick him and move on.

  • 21.
  • At 12:42 PM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • Christo wrote:

Bad news for Jonny, but it shouldn't have too big an impact.

Barkley kicked brilliantly last time he played, and he's a strong lad so the tackling will be ok - with Mike Catt outside the decision making should be fine, also. The only downside is that Jonny's first game will be against the Springboks, which is a bit of a worry.

Just hoping no more injuries at al lbefore the South Africans come at us, cos we're gonna need every one of our first team firing to get past them!

  • 22.
  • At 01:22 PM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • Chuck wrote:

This article may not be exactly pro English but they have not even mentioned the 'British' (BBC) teams yet! Is this the way it is to continue or they going to tour round all the other training camps and media events?

  • 23.
  • At 02:13 PM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • Tom McConalogue wrote:

Unfortunately, we decided to introduce Johnny to the international stage at such a young age, then these injuries are on the cards for the future. Yes he was instrumental in winning us the world cup, but we didn't give him time to nurture (the same can be said of Michael Owen in football).

The likes of Guiness Premiership (and Prmeier League in football) put too much physical pressue on players these days.

Anyway, England I feel can still win the world cup if they bounce of the ball goes their way!

  • 24.
  • At 03:32 PM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • P for Prop wrote:

5live reporters with the teams, is this the columns from Tom Shanklin, Geordan Murphy, Chris Cusiter and Josh Lewsey? If so, then the celtic nations wont be getting anything "extra" to fill the void so far.

As for 84% of the population, ignoring that our friends in the Republic also count 4m more people possible interested in coverage, i would expect the next article to be about one of the other nations given the fact there are 6 so far and not one is about anything other than England.

  • 25.
  • At 08:19 PM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • roger bartley wrote:

Another crazy article about a news conference: What do journalists expect from news conferences? It seems to me you can't win with the British Media.

  • 26.
  • At 08:24 PM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • Mark Forster wrote:

I'd like to talk about the forwards selected for the opening test against the USA.

Ashton intimated that the 15 he chose for England's opening game would be their strongest and the team he would like to pick for the rest of the tournament. Some of the selections up front cause me concern.

It would seem that the front 5 virtually pick themselves with perhaps the exception of Matt Stevens for Andrew Sheridan. Stevens, I believe, would offer England more mobility up front.

The back row is another matter with the number 8 jersey being the main area of contention.

Dally has without doubt had his day. His selection is a worry. If you look at his displays for Wasps last season he looked washed up, slow and a shadow of his previous self. When Haskell replaced him, as he did on numerous occassions for the last 30 minutes of a game, Wasps forwards were suddenly a different pack. Haskell's pace gave them so much more.

All Dally did in the warm up games, particularly against France at Twickenham was lean on at the back of a ruck and not alot more. As a spectator you had to remind yourself that he was still on the pitch.
OK so he scored a try against a totally battered Welsh pack which you would expect any club No8 to have scored. Martin Corry was dropped as No8 in the 6 nations because he was too slow. Well he seems to put himself about alot more than Dally does these days.

Easter has to start at 8 and I d like to see Moody given a game on the blind side as he gives England more urgency and gets in the backs faces more than the likes of Worsely.

  • 27.
  • At 08:09 AM on 06 Sep 2007,
  • James Wain wrote:

In answer to Tony Murrays evaluation of Englands kicking ability with Jonny crocked again ("I don't fancy England's chances with Olly"), I'd like to point out that Barkleys kicking game against France during the warm-ups was both more consistent and more accurate than Wilkinsons.

He's put in top-drawer performances for both Bath and the Saxons over the past few months, and deserves better than to be written off as a poor second to Englands world cup hero of 2003, before this years tournament has even started.

  • 28.
  • At 03:10 AM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • Tony Murray wrote:

# 27

Fair point. I know Olly had a good performance against France. I just don't know how well he'll perform under the pressure of a world cup. And it's not just the points with the boots, England need someone to kick well out of hand.

Go England!

  • 29.
  • At 02:36 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • Tony D wrote:

1st - I looked for England on this site because I firstly an england supporter and am interested in my own team - im sure if you click on the connections for the forums on the celtic nations you will find topics that are of interest to you.

2nd I know this is controversial but if Andy Farrel was the foremost stand off in Rugby League (and record goal kicker) why not give him a go at Fly Half - even if it against USA for the last twenty minutes......

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