When Martin Johnson, the new England manager, unveils his first 32-man senior squad a week tomorrow, it may well contain the names of the four players at the centre of a rape investigation by New Zealand police. There's a depressing thought. As the union game heads into its summer recess, it has no way of knowing whether the inquiry into events at the team hotel in Auckland after the first Test against the All Blacks nine days ago will still be ongoing when it returns. Only this much is certain: the image of red-rose rugby is in tatters.
Greg Ford, a New Zealand journalist, summed it up rather neatly yesterday. "We've become all too familiar with the English sending second-rate sides here... but something altogether more sinister has tainted this one. They are at best guilty of some pretty shoddy behaviour, at worst criminal behaviour. England's departure could not come soon enough for four of the side, and for many of us the feeling is mutual. Good riddance, old chaps." As the tourists departed for the airport, a few hours after a second successive heavy defeat by their hosts and, for some, a second successive Saturday night on the town, the so-called "Auckland Four" were among their number. The police had been asking all week to speak to them about the alleged rape of a teenage woman in a waterfront hotel room following a visit to a bar of questionable reputation, to no avail.
As the woman had not filed a formal complaint, they had no grounds to press for anything other than voluntary interviews. Acting on the advice of the England team's travelling barrister, Richard Smith QC, the four declined the invitation, even though Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, could be heard insisting that the players had "denied any wrongdoing in the strongest terms" and were "upset and frustrated" at being unable to "clear their names".
Predictably, the weekend yielded fresh information that served only to increase the RFU's discomfort. One English tabloid offered a detailed account of events at the Pony Club bar in Auckland, where a number of the touring players gathered after the Test at Eden Park, and identified David Strettle, the Harlequins wing, as an enthusiastic sexual partner of Sophie Lewis – one of several women taken back to the team hotel by players in contravention of the team's code of conduct. Lewis, said to have sold her story for $NZ 12,000 (£4,600), said she was a willing participant.
Far more seriously, a New Zealand paper reported that the alleged rape victim sought hospital treatment after her ordeal before quoting Noreen Hegarty of Auckland City Police as saying: "Investigations of adult sexual assault involve the complainant being medically examined and a preliminary interview being conducted with a view to taking a formal statement several days later if the victim so wishes. The fact that a formal statement has not been forthcoming does not in any way reduce the seriousness or veracity of the allegation."
So, what now? Having refused to name the suspects, the England management must now decide if the quartet can be subjected to an internal RFU inquiry of the sort Judge Jeff Blackett, the union's chief disciplinary officer, would naturally want to conduct while the police file is still open. Were the players to be omitted from the senior and second-string Saxons squads about to be announced, they would stand every chance of being identified, if only by guesswork.
Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby who managed this tour in Johnson's absence, admitted yesterday that because of this, they may be picked, then "retrospectively dropped".
Baron has already promised a thorough overhaul of the "teamship rules" first introduced by the World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward. Under the elite player squad agreement signed by the RFU, the Premiership clubs and the players' union, a new code of conduct will be introduced – one that promises to be draconian as a result of events here.
Yet even this simple measure might be open to abuse. Baron wants to increase the security presence around England touring teams – apparently to protect them from predatory women rather than predatory criminals – yet, according to Lewis, when the players returned to their Auckland hotel in female company after their ill-fated trip to the Pony Club, at least some of them were driven by security staff charged with keeping them out of trouble.
Andrew looked as though he had had his fill yesterday as he cast an eye over the rugby events of the last fortnight – events that were quite bad enough, without being complicated by the off-field shenanigans of his charges. The stand-in manager did not feel inclined to accept blame, however. "If you're going to play the blame game," he said, in answer to an inquiry as to who, if anyone, might take some responsibility for this shambles, "I am absolutely not blaming myself.
"At the end of the day, players on England duty must take responsibility for their actions. We've had to deal with some very difficult situations over the last 12 months, but I intend to carry on as elite director. No, I will not be considering my position."
And the decision to allow the players to hit the town in Christchurch, a week after they had hit it in Auckland in so calamitous a manner? Whose idea might that have been? "Yes, some of them did go out," Andrew replied. "We talked about it as a group, discussed whether people felt it was appropriate to leave the hotel under the circumstances, and a decision was made. It's been a very long year, this tour has been a tough experience on and off the field, and I think it was reasonable for people to have a drink at the end of it, if that's what they wanted to do. I wasn't going to lock them in their rooms."Reuse content