Woeful England head home after World Cup to forget

After a bitterly disappointing defeat to France, England’s rugby team heads home with questions to answer about performance on the pitch and misdemeanours off it.

Submitted by on Sunday, 9 October 2011

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Wayne Rooney’s petulant kick at an opposition player in England’s stuttering draw with Montenegro on Friday night catapulted the Manchester United striker to the front of the English sporting media’s line of fire. Within twelve hours, however, he had been replaced by Martin Johnson and his squad, who had just been knocked out of the Rugby World Cup.

It was not the elimination itself so much as the manner of it. France defeated England 19-12, but that one-score margin was hardly a reflection of a match that Les Bleus were allowed to dominate. France led 16-0 at half-time, and the error-strewn English side never looked likely to overhaul that deficit.

The off-the-field misdemeanours – captain Mike Tindall’s alleged infidelity, dwarf-tossing in a Dunedin bar, suggestions that three players bullied a female staff member at the team hotel – could be, if not excused, then perhaps glossed over if progress on the pitch was evident.

But, with the possible exception of the performances of Manu Tuilagi, it never came. England ground to a narrow, ill-disciplined win over Argentina, before toiling against Georgia. Romania were, admittedly, seen off easily – but it is only Romania – before Chris Ashton grabbed a late try to extinguish the Scottish challenge.

Yet despite their poor form in the pool, Johnson’s side went into yesterday’s defeat as favourites, owing to the even worse performances from France, who had lost to New Zealand and, sensationally, Tonga, just seven days previously. But a Vincent Clerc try with a quarter of yesterday’s encounter gone horribly exposed defensive frailties that would have embarrassed even the smallest sides at the World Cup. Clerc, somehow, was allowed to brush off tackles at will; the French winger almost looked surprised still to be on his feet as he fell across the line.

That score opened up an 11-0 lead, which was extended by five within ten minutes when Maxime Medard crossed after Clerc sucked defenders away from the centre. Trailing by at least three scores, England could have ended up on the wrong end of a humiliation.

If there is any small vestige of credit to be salvaged by England from this game, it is that they at least managed to claw back that deficit. Two second-half tries – from Ben Foden and Mark Cueto, who this time was given the benefit of any doubt by the TMO, four years after his disallowed try in the 2007 final – gave England hope. But France had done enough, and a Francois Trinh-Duc drop goal ensured that his side would progress to face Wales in the semi-finals. The Welsh, victorious over an Irish side that were far from poor themselves, provide a stark contrast to their larger neighbour to the east.

Sam Warburton’s men are extremely well-disciplined, on and off the field. If it is a generalisation to state that they all watch James Bond films and go to rugby games in their free time while their English counterparts display loutish behaviour, it does not seem to be far from the truth. Public image is important, as well, and while Welsh fans admire their team’s focus, the English despair that their side, with all its shortcomings, seem more concerned with having a good time.

Another difference is in the fitness levels. Wales made only two substitution in their defeat of Ireland, despite having to defend for the majority of the game, apparently a great indication of the merits of Warren Gatland’s gruelling pre-World Cup training camp. His side were fresh, creative and determined. England, though, looked out of ideas and eventually ran out of steam. That late Cueto try gave no more than false hope – and if England had managed to snatch a draw it would have been mightily undeserved.

Martin Johnson was a fantastic player, but his shortcomings as a coach have been laid bare for all to see at this competition. Perhaps he is too matey with the players – many of whom he played with, after all – in allowing them to go further than letting their hair down in the evenings. His team is short of discipline on the field, too, as shown by the number of penalties conceded and the opportunities squandered by poor passes and foolish decision making. RFU bosses have a big call to make over Johnson’s future. Under Johnson, England have fallen back, and a fresh face is surely needed to sort out the team’s problems and rein in its off-the-field habits.

From an English rugby perspective, the last five weeks in New Zealand have been a disaster and an embarrassment; England have shown themselves to be no more than the fourth best team in Europe whilst player behaviour has disgraced the nation and provoked justified outrage from those who have stumped up to follow their team.

England have offered nothing positive at this World Cup – perhaps from their point of view it is something of a mercy that they can go home and undergo a major shake-up of the national set-up.