Matt Banahan, the outsized England wing, has been handed a two-week suspension – just a tad amusing, given his surname – for his illegal challenge on the Wallaby midfielder Berrick Barnes during the tourists' tryless victory over the Australian Barbarians in Gosford on Tuesday. The southern hemisphere's disciplinary classes were always going to get even after the embarrassing shambles over the Dave Attwood citing at the start of the trip and the subsequent acquittal of the harshly-charged Mark Cueto, and it leaves the red-rose party a back down in a part of the world where backs count rather more than they do in the Premiership.
While Banahan, off limits until the end of the month, had no chance of featuring in the second Test here on Saturday, he will miss the difficult final fixture with the New Zealand Maori in Napier next Wednesday, although he may see that as a blessing. As the tour has less than a week to run, he is unlikely to stagnate through inactivity. However, the s-word was used in connection with England yesterday by one of their own number, and it sounded unnerving.
Toby Flood, the Leicester outside-half who wore No 10 against the Wallabies in Perth five days ago, put his team's dire display in that match down to a range of factors, one of which was a deteriorating appreciation of the possibilities on offer away from the scrum, the only area dominated by England. "We drove the point too hard up front and became stuck in a rut," he said. "It was stagnation. We allowed it to become an 'us versus them' thing at the set-piece when we should have gone to and fro a bit more.
"It's tantalising when you think you can get a try out of it, or put one of your opponents in the sin bin" – indeed, England achieved both of these things – "but we did over-scrum and it led us down the garden path. We have to go out there with the ambition to play. We became too narrow-minded in Perth and if we make the mistake in the Sydney Test of exhausting one option before moving onto something else, we'll fall down again."
They were honest words from an honest individual who also admitted to a "sheepish" feeling amongst the players as they entered their post-Perth analysis session, where their naivety – along with their powder-puff tackling – was no doubt ruthlessly highlighted by the coaches. But is it the coaches who are at fault?
Repeatedly in recent months, the manager Martin Johnson and his colleagues have been expressing their determination to free up the players' collective mindset and to encourage them to be "smarter than the average bear", to exhume a red-rose cliché from the Clive Woodward era. Yet those same coaches were openly accused of being playbook-obsessed – both over-prescriptive and over-proscriptive – during last autumn's international series at Twickenham and there are mutterings from some of the current squad that the pre-ordained gameplan continues to rule.
In Gosford on Tuesday night, the attack coach Brian Smith – a very senior figure among the back-room staff – was among the water-carrying masses on the touchline, sprinting on at every injury stoppage with bottles galore. Only a fool would imagine that hydration was his principal concern. He was passing on instructions. Heaven knows, England are not the only team in the world who bark orders from the side of the field, but there is a widespread perception that they do it more than most.
England are certain to make a change or two: Jonny Wilkinson, whose last act in a Test in this city was to drop the goal that won the 2003 World Cup, is a decent bet to reappear in midfield alongside Flood – the two can mix and match at 10 and 12 – while the Northampton lock Courtney Lawes has a strong claim to a starting place in the pack.
The news from a Wallaby camp understandably worried about the state of their set-piece, if about nothing else, was encouraging for England. Tatafu Polota-Nau, the tough hooker from the New South Wales Waratahs who had been fast-tracked towards this weekend's Test after a spell of injury trouble, aggravated an ankle problem in Gosford and is now thought unlikely to be available.Reuse content