Being under fire has created a siege mentality, claims Cueto
We're in a goldfish bowl but criticism has brought us together, says England winger
England's players are under heavy fire from all directions: not only have the New Zealanders dismissed their rugby as boring and the buoyant Celts condemned them as old-fashioned, but their own countrymen are castigating them for being wildly undisciplined. Yesterday, they retaliated by rejecting claims that they are the worst-behaved red rose team to visit these shores since... well, the last red rose team to come here, a little over three years ago. Notoriously, that side spent the second half of a two-week tour refusing to help police with their inquiries about alleged sexual shenanigans during the first half.
"In another country, all this might have added up to nothing," said Mark Cueto, the experienced wing who played in the last World Cup final and has been a mainstay of the side since Martin Johnson took over as manager in the late spring of 2008. "In this country, it's a big thing. A couple of incidents have occurred and we understand that we're in a goldfish bowl, but people need to move on and write about other stuff. We're talking three whole weeks ago, but people are still going on about it."
He was talking of the much-discussed events in Dunedin and Queenstown early in the tournament: allegations by a hotel chambermaid of harassment in the first town, Mike Tindall's drunken antics in the second. Cueto was particularly supportive of Tindall, whose royal connection – he married Zara Phillips during the summer – has increased his worldwide profile by approximately 100 per cent. "It's horrendous – give the guy a break," he remarked. "If the boys can't go out and have a couple of beers, it's a sad world we're living in."
Cueto was clearly put out about the deluge of rotten publicity surrounding some of his colleagues: not just Tindall, who has now changed his story about his precise whereabouts during the now infamous booze session following last month's victory over Argentina, but also the three players – Chris Ashton, Dylan Hartley and James Haskell – who were ordered to apologise to the Dunedin hotel worker after she complained of their behaviour towards her at the start of the trip.
"Actually, I do think it's brought us closer together," said the wing. "Yes, this has come as a reality check for us all: I'm one of the senior players here and I've been to New Zealand before, but when you come here for a World Cup it's a completely different environment. We do feel as though mountains have been made out of molehills, though. I'm surprised that it's still being made out to be an issue."
As if they did not have enough on their plate, England learnt yesterday that their old friend Steve Walsh would be handling this weekend's quarter-final against France at Eden Park. They would not dream of saying so in public, but they are not exactly beside themselves with glee at the thought.
The New Zealander, who now referees under the Australian flag, is operating at the top level once again after finding himself at the centre of one controversy too many and going perilously close to forfeiting his Test status for good. At the 2003 World Cup, he was involved in a bizarre touch-line argument with the England fitness coach Dave Reddin during a game against Samoa: strong language was used, bottled water was squirted in anger. Two years later, while running the touch during a game on the Lions tour of New Zealand, he had a fractious exchange with Shane Horgan, the Irish wing.
* The England centre Manu Tuilagi has been fined $10,000 [£5,000] for wearing a sponsored mouthguard. The International Rugby Board imposed the sanction after discovering that Tuilagi had worn the guard during England’s first two World Cup games against Argentina and Georgia.
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