England know they must find a new gear to beat misfiring France

Tom Palmer calls on Johnson's side to find form that led to warm-up win in Dublin

Mark Cueto openly confessed yesterday that he "spat the dummy" when Martin Johnson, the England manager, omitted him from the starting line-up – and, indeed, the entire match-day squad – for last weekend's decisive pool game with Scotland. "Usually, no news is good news," the Sale wing said, "so when Martin stopped me on the way to the team room and asked for a word, I immediately wondered what was up. I knew I was fit and I'd scored a hat-trick of tries in the previous match. When he told me I wouldn't be playing ... yes, I suppose there was some sulking involved."

Happily, Cueto's sulks tend to be over and done with in the time it takes him to put three scores past a team of makeweights – 11 minutes, on the most recent available evidence, drawn from the mismatch victory over Romania in Dunedin 10 days ago. Even more happily from the player's perspective, there will be no question of him sitting out the game on the immediate horizon: the quarter-final with weird, wonderful, wholly discombobulated but supremely dangerous France this coming Saturday. His rival for the position, Delon Armitage of London Irish, picked up a one-match ban yesterday – his third suspension of the calendar year – after admitting hitting Chris Paterson, the Scotland full-back, with an illegal "look, no arms" tackle during the closing stages of the contest at Eden Park.

Leaving aside Dan Carter's wrecked adductor longus – as a common talking point, this sliver of groin muscle is the New Zealand equivalent of David Beckham's metatarsal, or, perhaps more accurately in terms of local historical resonance, the head of King Charles I – the All Black nation is most interested in the goings-on amongst Les Bleus: the apparent split between Marc Lièvremont and his players, who could not even bring themselves to share a beer with their coach after the unforeseeable defeat by Tonga at the weekend. But Cueto's words, allied to those of Toby Flood in the hours leading into the Scotland game, proved that tension is alive and kicking in the England party too.

Cueto told the management – indeed, he insisted to them – that he had fully recovered from the back problems that had delayed his entry into this tournament and was in perfect match trim. "Unfortunately, the coaches weren't convinced," he said. "They thought I was lacking a little edge, that I was a game away from being where I needed to be. We talked about it for five or 10 minutes and there was a bit of me that thought: 'Dropped? After a hat-trick? God, where am I?' But there was a team meeting a short while later and then we trained for an hour and a half. Of course, you're bitterly disappointed when these things happen, but in a tournament like this you quickly remind yourself that it's completely about the group."

Rather like Tom Palmer, the thoughtful and articulate England lock who also spent time chewing the fat yesterday, Cueto is an honest, up-front sort – one of the good guys, definitely. Fifty-four caps and one World Cup final into his international career, he has no use for, or patience with, all the flim-flam and flummery that, increasingly in this professional age, passes for rugby discourse between the people who play and the great unwashed.

He acknowledged that England's tempo thus far has been slow: far slower, indeed, than that of at least five of their fellow quarter-finalists – the three major southern hemisphere contenders, plus Ireland and Wales. (Much of Argentina's rugby has been played at an English pace. France? Their tempo is as mysterious as every other part of their game).

"At certain points over the last 12 months we've shown we can play at pace," Cueto argued, "and I think there were times during the pool stage when we picked up the pace while never quite managing to do it consistently. It's important to point out that we're four from four so far, and I'd far rather be in our position than be flying home having played some high-tempo rugby and been knocked out. But yes, there's an appreciation amongst the players of the need to up our game a lot now we've reached the last eight. It's certainly a big discussion point at the moment."

Interestingly, Palmer said something similar. Indeed, he went further. "In my opinion, the team's best performance recently was in Dublin in August, when we beat Ireland in the final warm-up match," he said. "That match proved we can play with high intensity at a high tempo and we need to find a way of reproducing that. Of course, the key decision-makers have to judge a game as it unfolds: there might be times when you need to slow things down, not speed them up. But the balance of the refereeing in this tournament is towards the attacking side, so it's not always possible to do it."

Palmer has a decent understanding of the French rugby psyche: he has played club rugby in Paris with Stade Français for the past couple of seasons, counts two members of the current Tricolore squad – the hooker Dimitri Szarzewski and his fellow lock Pascal Papé – as personal friends and he has made every effort to learn the language (not always a given amongst foreign imports). But like any English forward armed with what Les Bleus would call the "rosbif" mentality, there are certain things he simply does not grasp.

"There have been times at Stade Francais when the players haven't been mentally strong as a group – when people have folded quickly, have shown signs of not giving their all," he admitted. "That's difficult to take on board. But this week, I'm happy to buy into the old cliché about animals being most dangerous when they're wounded. I suspect that in spite of everything going on in their squad, they'll be highly committed. They'll be thinking that even though they've lost two pool games, they've been given another chance – that they're one performance away from a World Cup semi-final.

"I don't think for a second that they can be underestimated. The way I look at it, any player would be foolish to go into a knock-out match with the slightest feeling of complacency. We should expect nothing less than the fight of our lives."

Johnson and his back-room staff will have a clearer idea today of what, if anything, they can expect from Jonny Wilkinson this weekend. The World Cup-winning outside-half failed to go the distance against Scotland after hurting his right arm in a tackle. A hospital scan revealed no obvious muscular damage, but as of of yesterday, no-one in the red rose camp could say whether he would be fit to negotiate a full training session before the end of the week.

Mike Tindall, the centre, is also under treatment, having picked up a leg injury against the Scots. If Wilkinson is ruled out, Toby Flood will certainly start at No 10 against the French. Should Tindall be ruled out as well, there will be a recall for the much-criticised, little-used midfielder Shontayne Hape.


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada