ENGLAND expect to beat Georgia, a dozen places below them in the official international rankings, with something to spare when the two nations meet on World Cup business in Dunedin on Sunday. They also expect to take some severe physical punishment in the process - an inevitability made all the more disconcerting by the certain loss of one first-choice tight forward and the likely loss of a second. Courtney Lawes' two-match suspension, allied to fresh injury concerns over Andrew Sheridan, meant it was not a good news day for the red-rose camp.
Lawes travelled to Auckland in the company of England's very own Rumpole, the barrister Richard Smith, to answer a charge of striking the Argentine hooker Mario Ledesma with his knee late in the first half of last weekend's opening pool match. The Northampton lock's plea of not guilty was not upheld: instead, the Australian judicial officer Terry Willis awarded him a fortnight's rest without the option. Lawes would have been banned for three weeks - an outcome that would have ruled him out of the big match with Scotland on 1 October - but for his good disciplinary record, his expression of remorse and the lack of any aggravating factors linked to the Ledesma incident.
Martin Johnson, the England manager, was awaiting a full briefing from Smith before deciding whether to launch an appeal. Simultaneously, he was readying himself for the latest of many medical bulletins on the subject of Sheridan and his dodgy shoulder joints. The Lions prop reported some soreness after the arm-wrestle with the Pumas and underwent a scan, the detail of which was transmitted back to Blighty, where specialists familiar with Sheridan's orthopaedic history have been asked to make a judgement on his immediate prospects.
"As far as Courtney is concerned, we have cover in his position," Johnson said, referring specifically to Tom Palmer, the Paris-based forward whose contribution to the red-rose cause over the last 17 months or so has been considerable indeed. "We need to see people playing, rather than have them sit around for weeks on end before suddenly asking them how they're fixed for a World Cup knock-out match. But losing Courtney isn't great. Rugby is a fast-moving game and he dived in to make what he thought was a try-saving tackle. The disciplinary officials saw it a little differently, it seems."
On the subject of Sheridan, Johnson seemed concerned. England are not short of loose-head props: Alex Corbisiero, the young London Irish forward, made an authoritative start to his international career during this year's Six Nations Championship; Matt Stevens of Saracens - highly impressive for both club and country since returning from a two-year ban imposed after a positive test for cocaine use - has played enough rugby on the left-hand side of the scrum to be considered a genuine propping all-rounder; David Wilson, who filled the hole left by Stevens at Bath, knows what it is to play in the No 1 position. But Sheridan is a big figure in this team, figuratively as well as literally, and Johnson would much prefer him in one piece.
At least Lewis Moody, a non-playing captain since doing himself yet another mischief in the knee department during the first World Cup warm-up match with Wales early last month, is back in the selection shake-up. "We anticipate Lewis being there against Georgia," Johnson confirmed. "He's been running around this week, just as he was running around last week, and there comes a point when you have to say: 'Right, let's give it a go'. The medics always want a bit longer to work on things - if it was up to them, some people would never play. But what they've achieved in getting our injured players to where they are now is fantastic."
Unsurprisingly, the manager was alarmed by some of his charges' more obvious failings against the Pumas: he was flabbergasted by the poor quality of their work at the tackle area on first viewing, and even less impressed after watching a recording of proceedings. "There were things we just didn't deal with, and we should have recognised we weren't dealing with them more quickly," he admitted. "When we get our fundamentals right, we can play; when we get it wrong early - there was a lot of adversity out there, some of it self-inflicted - we make it bloody difficult for ourselves.
"But every winning coach from the first weekend, probably the best weekend of pool games we've ever seen at a World Cup, is saying the same thing: 'We're glad to get the win; now we need to improve'. I'm just happy to be sitting where I am with a victory behind us, because after an hour, the Argentina game was more losable than winnable.
"Now it's Georgia, and while people say they're not the Pumas, I'm looking at them as the most dangerous team in the world. Why? Because they're our next opponents. You're a fool if you underestimate anyone in this tournament."
As a parting shot, the manager rejected criticism of his decision to allow those players keen to sample Queenstown's extreme sports experience - the bungee jumping, white-water rafting and the all the rest of the palaver - to crack on with it.
"The things we do in training are more dangerous than that," he said, dismissively. "The players didn't ski because we considered that too risky, but the other stuff ... they're big boys now, aren't they?"
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