England flirt with disaster
September 16, 2011
England manager Martin Johnson's squad are in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons © Getty Images
England's showdown with Argentina in Dunedin last weekend was supposed to be the biggest battle they would face during the pool stages of the latest Rugby World Cup but it is becoming increasingly clear that will not be the case.
A tabloid splash involving centre Mike Tindall has the team hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons and the subsequent fight to preserve the reputation of the side and English rugby in general is set to be just as important as their quest for world domination.
The decision to allow the players the freedom to enjoy the many delights of their temporary base in Queenstown is not the key issue nor is their fondness for a drink or two. In the words of England manager Martin Johnson - "Rugby player drinks beer - shocker." What is most concerning is their failure to realise that they are susceptible to such headlines and to learn from past mistakes.
England's visit to New Zealand in 2008, that took place in the early days of Johnson's tenure although he did not travel for family reasons, is responsible for several dark days in the history of English rugby. A night out in Auckland following a hammering at the hands of the All Blacks ended in rape allegations and although no official complaint was made sufficient damage was done to the reputation of all those involved.
At that time a code of conduct was already in place to remind the players of their responsibilities with such mantras as: "The player is aware that he is representing England at all times and that the highest standards are expected in appearance, conduct and behaviour."
It was clearly not enough and so a new code was commissioned in the wake of the tour but that was just the start with task groups challenged to address the 'Image of the Game' and 'Core Values' while Johnson regular warnings over behaviour kept the players on their guard. The latest of those on the eve of their World Cup departure stressed that he trusted his squad but it was "down to players to make sensible decisions."
Tindall, a veteran of 73 Test caps, is one of 10 players in the current squad that were on that damaging trip to New Zealand in 2008 so you would hope that he is acutely aware of the potential pitfalls of touring. His recent high-profile marriage to a member of the Royal Family and the captaincy of the side in the absence of the injured Lewis Moody would surely have only served to heighten that awareness but a grainy security video would suggest otherwise. Even if there is nothing substantial to the alleged liaison, which is an extremely personal matter anyway, we should surely still question the decision of one of the side's senior figures to get so clearly inebriated. That is not the example he should be setting.
Other teams may have passed through Queenstown and enjoyed themselves in similar fashion and escaped the scrutiny of the press - but they are not the media magnets that are England. As one of the sport's major draws playing in its biggest tournament in arguably the world's most rugby-mad nation, England were foolish if they didn't think their every move would come under the microscope.
The sad thing is that incidents such as this overshadow all the positive headlines and the feel-good stories that the squad generates. England put smiles on people's faces all week be it on the streets of Queenstown whilst stopping for countless photos or at local schools where coaching sessions and impromptu Q&As delighted children and players alike. But even Google will struggle to supply you with details.
Very few observers would suggest these players should be locked away for the duration of a tournament and denied the chance to relax. The intensity of their preparation and the tournament itself demand a little balance and for many that option to partake in a drink or two is a welcome one. The trouble is that we don't see or read about their World Cup rivals New Zealand, Australia or South Africa letting off steam. That is not to say they don't test the limits of their own restraints but you sense we would hear about it if they did.
Johnson has previously stressed that he wants the players to enjoy the experience and accepts that part of that is going out with you team-mates to bond, "at the right time, to the right place and in the right way." And it was no surprise to see him stand by his decision to let them off the leash as any criticism now would no doubt destabilise their World Cup campaign. But there must come a time when he says 'enough is enough'.
A siege mentality may bolster England's challenge over the coming weeks although they are unlikely to get an easy ride from an ever-hungry media that may sense blood in the water. The players have since held their own meeting on the matter and can no longer be in any doubt as to their responsibilities. But haven't we heard that before?
With an official complaint looking unlikely with the owner of the bar busy calculating the value of all the exposure for his establishment, England can perhaps draw a line under the matter. But unless they start hitting the headlines for their on-field exploits - starting with their latest clash against Georgia on Sunday - this incident will continue to haunt them.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.