'It's us against the world,' claims England's Haskell
On the eve of their opening World Cup fixture, England revealed that a no-holds-barred training session on Thursday had put them in just the right frame of mind to take on an Argentina side intent on being as abrasive and dangerous as they were when beating France four years ago at the start of the 2007 tournament.
It is unusual for a team to risk full-on contact just 48 hours before a Test match, but England are mindful that they faltered horribly at the beginning of the last World Cup.
"It's a 30-strong group against the world," said James Haskell, slotting in on the openside for injured captain Lewis Moody. "The guys are desperate to perform. You can feel it. There's excitement there, but also fear. Rugby is not the No 1 sport back home and you come to a rugby-mad country like New Zealand and you want to perform. The talking stops. It's a World Cup. It's do-or-die. We've got to get the emotion out there."
Will the Thursday session at Carisbrook go down in folklore in the way that a beasting by forwards coach Jim Telfer in Pretoria did on the 1997 Lions tour? "In the pouring rain, that was as error-free a session as I've seen," said Martin Johnson, normally sparing with compliments.
The '97 Lions came good in South Africa. Can England? Certainly the Pumas do not have the resources of the team that took the 2007 World Cup by storm, the intensity of their play, the ebullience and emotion of their approach, proving irresistible.
"We can not live in the past, but to do it again now," said veteran hooker, Mario Ledesma, who is playing in his fourth World Cup and after which he will join Stade Francais as forwards coach. There was a spikiness in the Pumas' demeanour at their press conference, tipping the hat to England's supposed superiority all the more to get stuck into them.
Haskell though does not accept that an Englishman is of necessity less fervent than his Latin counterpart. "The Anglo-Saxon is just as passionate, but we may not show it so visibly," said Haskell, "But just because we're closed doesn't mean we don't feel it. We pride ourselves on how we are together."
The match will, of course, be about more than the stiff upper lip of the English at the anthems set against the blubbing wrecks that the Argentinians invariably are. But England do have to be fierce and unremitting in every phase, hard-nosed and hard-edged over the ball at the breakdown, or they will allow the big-trundling Pumas pack into the game and with it, the play-making instincts of Felipe Contepomi.
England palpably were not in the right mental state when they went to Dublin in March to tilt for a Grand Slam. Their presumptuousness cost them dear. Five months later they returned with a wholly different attitude. "We learnt from Dublin," said Haskell. "We've got to imagine every game is a final."
There is a long way to go before that. Even so, the impetus of a sound start will surely be important.(© Daily Telegraph, London)
England -- B Foden; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, M Tindall (capt), D Armitage; J Wilkinson, R Wigglesworth; A Sheridan, S Thompson, D Cole; L Deacon, C Lawes; T Croft, J Haskell, N Easter. Reps: D Hartley, M Stevens, T Palmer, T Wood, B Youngs, T Flood, M Banahan.
Argentina -- M Rodriguez; G Camacho, G Tiesi, S Fernandez, H Agulla; F Contepomi (capt), N Vergallo; R Roncero, M Ledesma, J Figallo; M Carizza, P Albacete; JF Cabello, JM Leguizamon, J Fernandez Lobbe. Reps: A Creevy, M Scelzo, M Galarza, A Campos, A Lalanne, M Bosch, JJ Imhoff.
REF -- B Lawrence (NZL)