James Lawton: England should now move on to greater things


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The Independent Online

If Martin Johnson tells his men one more time that they must move on, he might just be mistaken for the leader of a Bedouin raiding party rather than the English rugby union team going, at last, into the sharp end of the World Cup.

Yet what else can he say? Hardly, "Let's have some more of the same, boys."

Certainly it was impossible for him to say that after Dwarfgate, especially with the arrival of Mrs Mike Tindall at the team doorstep.

Kneegate, which was when the potentially awesome Courtney Lawes stuck one of his into the Argentina hooker and drew the first suspension of the tournament, was also something to which Johnson quite reasonably wanted to apply a little distance.

Ditto the contagion of penalties picked up in those leaden performances against Argentina and one of the treadmill rugby third worlders, Georgia, before they ran completely out of gas.

Yet did anything justify a call for the sharpest forward mobility more pressingly than the absurd business of Ballgate, when two senior members of the England coaching squad conspired to break the rules by ensuring that Jonny Wilkinson got to kick at the posts with balls that had not been used in the previous phases of play and were thus illegal?

Had this transgression, which has led to the Rugby Union banning the esteemed kicking guru Dave Alred and fitness coach Paul Stridgeon from tomorrow's vital collision with Scotland at Eden Park, occurred during some life and death struggle with New Zealand it might have seemed a little less incomprehensible, particularly given the kicking problems that have been bedevilling Wilko and other front rank performers. However, against Romania's Extra B? Move on, indeed.

Much of this will no doubt sound somewhat seditious to the average denizen of Twickenham because the truth appears to be that the real fury hell doesn't have is reserved for any scorning of the England team. However, it's not too easy dodging the fact that so far this is not a campaign that puts you immediately in mind of Erwin Rommel's best days in the North African desert.

Even the RFU moved slightly on to its back foot yesterday when admitting: "The RFU fully accepts that the actions of two management members was incorrect and detrimental to the image of the tournament, the game and England rugby." Johnson agreed, albeit through gritted teeth, saying: "It's unfortunate we've had to take this action but ultimately there was a breaking of the laws of the game.

"But it's happened, action has been taken and [wait for it] we have to move on."

No one is saying, certainly not here, that the final destination is inevitably a bad scene of futility, and this is in spite of the fact that New Zealand not only seem to be operating with an entirely grown-up thought process but have already produced some rugby that suggests they are on a completely different level to any of the other major contenders.

To dismiss England for their accumulated breakdowns in professionalism would, apart from anything else, show a total ignorance of recent rugby history.

If you thought England looked bad against Argentina and for much of the game against Georgia you should have been in the Stade de France in 2007 when South Africa in a pool game relentlessly mocked their status as defending world champions. As the South African score hit 30, and England were still to put a point on the board, you hardly knew where to look.

It was the same in Brisbane four years earlier when Wilko took to talking in riddles while trying to find a way to bring a little inspiration to an England team that had made it to the quarter finals without beginning to light up the sky.

In the first-half the Welsh were much superior and it took one of the boldest moves of Sir Clive Woodward's career to get the team back into serious competition. Woodward sent Mike Catt in as the controlling half-back and moved Wilkinson to centre. When England survived, the great Gerald Davies left the stadium shaking his head and complaining that Woodward had saved his "career decision" to blight Wales.

It means that what England bring to the weekend action is not just a familiar sense of disarray but a formidable capacity to find the level of defiance which brought first and second places in the last two World Cups. It is a cussed knack of growing strong at places where logic suggests they should be broken.

Scotland no doubt will play to their limits but England, you have to believe, will have too much for them. They will have too much strength, too much facility to discard the worst of their own mistakes. No, it has not been a distinguished or well-ordered campaign. Crucially, though, who can say that it doesn't have a remarkable instinct to, well, move on?