James Lawton: Cueto does England a disservice in defending shocking conduct


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The Independent Online

It could be that any day now the England team will come down from its parallel universe and get properly involved in this seventh World Cup of rugby. Maybe the French will do it too, in which case their quarter-final this Saturday might warrant something more cheery than a full-scale autopsy.

In the meantime, we should maybe refrain from falling over ourselves with optimism. Not, certainly, if the comments of Mark Cueto are about anything more than a defensive reflex.

The worry, though, is that Cueto – who has among his credentials the probability that he was unjustly denied potentially one of the most significant tries in the history of the English game – actually believed what he was saying when he asserted yesterday that the two most egregious of the many examples of unprofessionalism his squad have displayed over the last few weeks should really be seen as "bonding experiences".

Yes, we're talking about vice-captain Mike Tindall's decision to drink himself to the point where he was crashing into walls and quite forgetting for which particular set of CCTV cameras he was performing. In the same category, apparently, was the decision of James Haskell, Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton to lure a young hotel employee into one of their rooms and then reduce her to tears with the force of their lewd banter.

"Molehills," declared Cueto. He added: "If the boys can't go out and have a couple of beers it's a sad world we're living in."

And this: "I do think it's brought us closer together. We do feel that mountains have been made out of molehills. I'm surprised that it's still made out to be an issue."

Cueto made this last announcement shortly after it was revealed that Tindall had been obliged to apologise for lying to, or "misleading", team manager Martin Johnson over the length and the various locations of his lost night in the early days of the tournament.

Yet Cueto persists in the legend of a few beers. It used to be a euphemism for some serious arm-raising. Now it apparently covers drinking so heavily it sharply reduces your ability to walk, avoid walls, and have more than the vaguest clue about where you have been, what you have done and with whom you did it when you wake up on one those early, formative mornings of what is supposed to be a serious assault on sports history.

The capacity of the experienced Cueto to avoid the reality of England's track record in a tournament which on the previous two occasions saw them triumph against both formidable opposition and some form of their own which was much less than uplifting is especially jolting. A man of fine accomplishment and competitiveness, he has gone closer than most of his England contemporaries to a touch of sporting immortality.

But for the mistake of a match official – one hugely exacerbated by the fact that he was in full receipt of technological assistance at the time – he might already stand beside Jonny Wilkinson in the roll call of fully paid-up English rugby heroes.

Exhaustive re-examination has established beyond reasonable doubt that in the final against South Africa at the Stade de France four years ago he scored a try that would, if granted, have given England vital momentum in their attempt to win a second straight world title.

This, on top of a trying injury that has left him mostly in the margins of the current tournament, is the kind of thing that might just put you somewhat on edge. This is no doubt especially so when you are 31 and almost certainly confronted by your last chance at some ultimate career glory.

Perhaps this reality came to the surface when – as reported by himself – he entered a dark and extremely deep sulk when Johnson told him that, despite scoring three tries against Romania, he would return to the sidelines for the vital game with Scotland. "Dropped?" exclaimed Cueto, "after a hat-trick? God, where am I?"

He was of course at a World Cup, which, now he knows, he might pass on to some of his team-mates before they dream up another jolly, bonding jape that might just require the intervention of lawyers.

Cueto gets his place back not because of the three tries he scored against Romanian seconds but because Delon Armitage betrayed a run of brilliant form by still another suspension – this time for a bone-headed high tackle on Scotland's Chris Paterson.

Maybe more than anything the England team needs to reacquaint itself with the theory of cause and effect. If, while in a position of considerable responsibility, you wipe yourself out to the point of creating all kinds of emotional stress that will provide distraction from the main point of your professional existence for a few weeks, you are probably much less likely to achieve optimum levels of performance. To put it another way, it could be why Tindall has been playing like a drain.

When Cueto says that the media won't let go of those incidents that came early in the tournament, he should understand that the beginnings of any worthwhile analysis of a chain of embarrassing mishaps and rank underperformance is bound to give a nod to that business of cause and effect.

The evidence, compounded by the puerile behaviour of three players in their bullying behaviour to a young and vulnerable woman, has inevitably been recalled with each new example of inattention to basic professional detail.

"I don't think we're ill-disciplined off the field at all," said Cueto. "At the end of the day we went out, had a few drinks, and the story ran for three weeks."

That story didn't run for three weeks but certainly, and unavoidably, it was a constant point of reference.

If England were hopelessly undisciplined on the field, if they ran up shocking penalty counts against Argentina, Georgia and even the lame-duck Romanians, if even senior coaches got themselves suspended for the huge game against Scotland because of half-baked attempts at sharp practice, how was it possible to avoid a link with the shocking lack of restraint displayed in various late-night bars and a hotel room?

Around about the time England were sprawling their way into Dwarfgate, Wales, whose players invoked their own curfew and drinking rules, and Ireland were producing superb performances against, respectively, the reigning world champions South Africa and Australia.

Argentina were displaying the resolution and the discipline that helped them beat Scotland – and New Zealand, with Daniel Carter still marvellously free of injury and playing again the rugby of the gods, were setting a superb benchmark.

And what, comparatively speaking, were England up to at around that time Cueto tells us to consign to the past? They were edging their way to a narrow victory over Argentina pockmarked by a rash of penalties, their vice-captain was near paralysing himself in some late and early-morning bars, there was a spot of bungee-jumping whose adverse effects are still a matter of speculation, and three star players were pestering a young and innocent hotel worker.

This is what Mark Cueto, erstwhile man of destiny, asks us to place in the category of going out and having a few beers. He bemoans a world that doesn't permit such a small liberty. Of course he is wrong. There is a line in Malcolm Lowry's Under The Volcano which speaks of the abyss of too little and the chasm of too much.

In this World Cup of rugby the best of the contenders have walked brilliantly down the middle. England should give it a try and, who knows, they might just find something like the best of themselves.