THE ENGLAND manager Martin Johnson, his injured captain Lewis Moody and a quartet of "supporting cast" players - Shontayne Hape, Alex Corbisiero, Lee Mears, David Wilson - headed north yesterday to offer their sympathies to the shattered rugby community of the Canterbury region, which would have been World Cup heartland but for the earthquakes that levelled much of central Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand, and forced the tournament organisers to move its share of matches elsewhere. It was a both a generous gesture and an important one.
"To see Lancaster Park, as I always think of it, in this state is really sad," said Johnson as he made a beetle-browed examination of the recently reconstructed AMI Stadium, which will now have to be re-reconstructed as a result of the tremors that sunk two substantial grandstands several feet into the ground and liquefied the pitch. "We should have been playing in Christchurch, but we just get to go and play somewhere else. For the people here, this is home. Rugby was never top of the agenda when this occurred. What happened was a tragedy."
Back down the coast, those who will be involved in Saturday's opening pool match with Argentina at the new Otago Stadium were left to their own devices, although in characteristic fashion, Jonny Wilkinson spent a chunk of his free day practising his goal-kicking. Dylan Hartley, a New Zealand native, could be seen driving around downtown Dunedin in a vintage car; others headed for the waterfront. All, however, had matters South American on their minds.
Not least the wide runners, who looked pretty damned good until the mid-point of this year's Six Nations Championship, since when they have barely fired a shot. While Chris Ashton, who has drawn a blank since putting four tries past Italy in February, was suitably bullish - "If opponents are spending their time working out ways of covering what I'm doing," said the wing, serenely, "it means there's more space for Ben Foden" - his argument would have been more convincing had Foden spent the last few matches exploiting the extra room. Unfortunately, the full-back's purple patch has faded to grey.
"I know I haven't been that impressive recently," conceded the Northampton player, whose fast-developing habit of kicking away prime attacking ball has not endeared him to the coaching staff - or, indeed, to the more experienced international hands operating alongside him. "Mike Tindall has given me a hard time about this and yes, maybe I've been doing too much of it lately. I need to up my game a bit. But this is what I've been working towards my whole career and I'll enjoy the pressure that comes with playing on a stage as big as this one. I'm looking to take my chances."
His cause is not being helped by the hassle surrounding Mark Cueto, a veteran of the last World Cup final in 2007 and by some distance the most experienced back-three specialist on the trip. The Sale wing was never in a position to challenge for a place against the Pumas, having suffered back spasms in the early stages of the final warm-up game in Dublin 12 days ago, and if the bleakest prognosis turns out to be accurate - there are those inside the camp who do not expect to him to regain full fitness for at least a fortnight - much attention will be focused on Delon Armitage, the oft-suspended London Irish player who at least shows signs of being in some sort of form.
Johnson's decision to fly here with three injured players - Moody, Cueto and the Leicester scrum-half Ben Youngs, who has been hors de combat since undergoing surgery on his knee in June - is threatening to backfire at decibel levels that would make Led Zeppelin sound like a folk band. Three and a half years in the planning, this campaign will commence with England shorn of their captain and only specialist open-side flanker, their most Test-hardened wing and their best half-back.
Injuries can undermine the best-laid plans, but it was a management decision to allow a player with a bad back to spend 24 hours at 37,000 feet, rather than delay his departure for a few days, just as it was Johnson's call to stick with a skipper who has played all of nine hours of competitive rugby since the start of the year. Significant risks have been taken, and if England fail to find a way past the Pumas, they will deserve everything they get - most likely a quarter-final against New Zealand, always assuming they make it that far.
There is nothing flippant about the point, for the former champions are in a tough group: the easiest one to win, maybe, but also the easiest one to mess up. Both Argentina and Scotland are regular quarter-finalists in these global gatherings and while Romania are not expected to pose any significant threat - their days as contenders ended with the dawning of professionalism - another band of Eastern Europeans are quietly confident of making a thorough nuisance of themselves. And not for the first time, either.
Georgia, who might easily have beaten Ireland in the 2007 tournament, open their account against the Scots in the southern outpost of Invercargill in six days' time, and as their head coach, Richie Dixon, just happens to hail from the Borders - and is a former Scotland coach into the bargain - there is potential for all manner of trouble and strife.
"No matter which country you're talking about," Dixon remarked yesterday, "rugby is a struggle without a decent set of forwards. The good thing from Georgia's point of view is that the forward pack is very decent. When I first met the players I could see they were genetically made for rugby. We're working hard on balancing the warrior with the artist, but one thing's for sure: we won't be short of the warrior."
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