October 11, 2011
England manager Martin Johnson reflects on defeat to France © Getty Images
It wasn't supposed to be like this. England left New Zealand not as world beaters but as a laughing stock. A campaign that had promised much delivered plenty, but instead of intoxicating rugby we got inebriated players, cheats rather than champions and suspensions and fines where it was hoped there would be heroes and glory.
This tale of woe, punctuated by the odd game of rugby, will not be recorded as one of English rugby's finest moments, far from it, with an alarming total of eight brushes with authority and tabloid infamy. From a booze-filled night in Queenstown to a spot of ball-juggling in Dunedin, controversy was a near-constant companion throughout their stay, with the team making headlines for all the wrong reasons up even until the day they left thanks to Manu Tuilagi's crazy decision to throw himself off a ferry into Auckland harbour.
The team's one shot at redemption lay on the pitch, where four solid, work-in-progress type victories carried them into the quarter-finals. But they failed to raise their game just when it mattered most. Defeat to France not only condemned them to their worst World Cup return since 1999 but also ensured that this tournament will be remembered for their off-field exploits and not their endeavour on it.
England flirted with the kind of game that would have taken them deep into the business end of the competition but no more than that. The physicality that we have become accustomed to was there in abundance, although cracks were evident in the games against Argentina and Scotland and to a lesser extent those with Romania and Georgia.
The scrum and lineout that had offered assurance in the last year or so also creaked in the heat of battle, but opportunities were created and tries were scored to propel them past their rivals and to the top of the Pool. Perhaps just as importantly, England's defence looked in great shape, having conceded just one try, and they progressed relatively injury-free.
There was clearly still plenty of room for improvement but sadly the knockout stages did not produce anything of the sort from England - in fact they went backwards. The Six Nations Champions were at their error-prone worst against a French side desperately lacking in confidence. Only when their World Cup hopes were hanging by a thread did they rediscover the cohesion that had been sorely lacking up until that point, but it was too little, too late. Having been handed a much-prized opportunity to steer their country into the final four of a World Cup and presented with a favourable draw that suggested even better could be theirs, they failed spectacularly.
Individuals were guilty of basic errors while the team at times made you wonder what they had actually been doing during three months of preparation at their luxury Surrey training base and in the month they had been in New Zealand when they weren't up to mischief. That widespread concern will increase pressure on the coaching team and manager Martin Johnson, who face a grilling as part of a six-week review of the tournament. Tactical decisions, including the surprising and untested pairing of Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood in the 10-12 axis in the quarter-final, will also be scrutinised.
It was a disappointing way for some of the senior players to bow out of World Cup rugby, with the likes of Wilkinson, centre Mike Tindall and prop Andrew Sheridan among those who will surely not see another tournament. One player who will no doubt return to this stage is Tuilagi. The 20-year-old has wasted no time in becoming a key weapon for his country despite only having made his international breakthrough two months ago.
A potent mix of power, pace and skill, he was a constant threat in attack and a sizeable presence in defence. Despite his ill-timed dip, Tuilagi is one of a handful of players, along with the likes of winger Chris Ashton and Flood, to have emerged from the tournament having enhanced his rugby CV. However, concerns remain over his image and he will need a guiding hand if he is to fulfil his potential.
That inability to make 'good decisions' hints at a lack of guidance, which in turn suggests there may be a lack of leadership figures. The team as whole failed to learn the lessons of England's scandal-rocked trip to New Zealand in 2008 and seemingly struggled to curb their excesses on this trip despite warnings from Johnson. You sense that wouldn't have been the case had Johnson still been lacing boots up for his country rather than pulling on a suit on match days.
Flanker Lewis Moody led the squad on the field but his battle for fitness and form will have occupied much of his build up to the World Cup. He and Johnson must take responsibility for the team's failure to toe the line and give the tournament the respect it warranted - a factor sure to be at the centre of the forthcoming review. The conduct of some of the players was simply unacceptable and does not do them, the team or the sport any favours.
England's shortcomings on and off the field were magnified by the success of their Six Nations rivals Wales and Ireland, who produced some of the best rugby the tournament has seen. Ireland's impressive effort brought them the scalp of Tri-Nations champions Australia and while Wales may have narrowly missed the opportunity to match that feat against South Africa, they find themselves in the semi-finals. Both sides can lay claim to a more impressive return than their English counterparts.
England can expect further ridicule on their return home and while the history books will note their high-profile failure the focus will swiftly switch to the future. Johnson's current contract expires at the end of the year and as yet he has not declared a desire to stay on. He appears to have the support of the RFU's acting chief executive Martyn Thomas but with his own position under threat it remains to be seen what influence he can wield.
While Johnson will no doubt decide his own future before anyone else offers to do so for him, his coaching team and players do not wield the same power and change of some kind appears certain. How drastic that surgery turns out to be remains to be seen.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.