England stuck a finger up and had it rammed down their throats

Clean-living Wales expose Johnson and his men's calamitous campaign, but the English still can't see it

The delicious paradox in the way the remaining British sides met with triumph and disaster in yesterday's World Cup quarter-finals may not appeal immediately to the England supporters consoling themselves by the Auckland quayside and considering jumping in.

Who would have thought that the team to knuckle down, get super-fit, rein back on the boozing and reach a second semi-final in their history would have been Wales? And that for a second successive trip to New Zealand the mocking catcalls in England's ears as they pack their bags are laced with genuine disdain for a squad prone to poor discipline on and off the field.

The sexual pranks by a handful of players during England's 2008 tour here led to a stern report by the Rugby Football Union's hanging judge, Jeff Blackett, and umpteen questions between then and now put to Martin Johnson – the fledgling manager who began his tenure as soon as that defeated squad returned – over whether the lesson had been learnt.

That most of the current squad have been well-behaved, ambassadorial types undone only by their ordinariness as World Cup challengers has buttered no lamb shanks in All Black country. The alcoholic celebrations by some after the opening win against Argentina in a moderate-strength pool also featuring Scotland, Georgia and Romania were over the top. And though Mike Tindall's singular misbehaving, exposed by a security guard's bizarre vendetta, plus the distasteful treatment by three players of a female hotel worker while they were videoing a tour diary were isolated incidents, they were accompanied by rugby cock-ups too. Suspensions for Courtney Lawes and Delon Armitage; the World Cup-leading counts of ruck and scrum penalties conceded; and the utterly daft and possibly paranoid ball-switching episode involving Jonny Wilkinson.

They were all, in the context of an attempt to win England a second World Cup, more calamitous than the misdeeds a privately irate Johnson tried to publicly sweep under the carpet with a catch-all description: "Rugby players go out for a beer, shock".

No one should run away with the idea that Wales are now teetotal chapel-goers who have burned their Tom Jones CDs due to their suggestive lyrics. But they have given up heavy drinking after games, which some might say is a start.

The hugely impressive just-turned 23-year-old captain, Sam Warburton – a Cardiff-born son of an English firefighter apparently with the working discipline to match his dad's – is the face of a newly serious squad who got accustomed to rising at 4am for their summer training camps in Poland and have kicked on from there.

Wales have as many young players as England, whose most obvious new hope is the Samoan centre Manu Tuilagi, but they are making that rawness work for them with a collective spirit and understanding that power in the modern game is more important than the old Welsh devotion to dancing around. In this way the venerable Shane Williams has been recastfrom a wing desperate to get hands on the ball at every opportunity to a selective picker and poacher, trading brilliantly on the muscular incursions of Warburton, Jamie Robertsand friends.

"The young guys in this squad have got to take this experience and learn from it," said England's Mark Cueto, one of half-a-dozen or so players unlikely to see another World Cup. But learn what? That to have a good time while touring is no crime as long as it stays within sensible boundaries – ideally those laid down by the manager and agreed by one and all. The bright spark who thought handing the diary camera to James Haskell – a tabloid favourite for his schooldays' association with a controversial video – was a good idea needed shooting. It was redolent of an "up yours" attitude, just as with the kit manufacturerwho clad England head to foot inblack day in, day out at training and for the match with Argentina, presumably to cock a snook at or at least demystify their New Zealand hosts.

"Guys will look back and think this was their last chance in a World Cup and that's a sickening thought," said Haskell, whose next port of call is Tokyo, playing for the Ricoh Black Rams. Asked if he thought it had been calamitous, he said: "Unfortunately when you put the England shirt on, the British media and everyone else likes to get on top of you. We were as professional as we could have been and guys worked as hard as they could. There were a couple of incidents that caught the headlines and allowed other teams who've enjoyed what New Zealand had to offer to do it in relative peace.

"It's always the way with British teams. It's a shame, because there's a lot of good support and we wanted to make sure we went out there and did justice to our country and to ourselves. I don't feel aggrieved, it's part and parcel of playing for England.

"There are people who like to jump on an obvious situation and make a mountain out of a molehill. People have to realise we're all professional sportsmen working as hard as we can and no one is here on a jolly. That was never the case."

Rugby people are difficult to spook. Perhaps these particular men in black always suspected they would depart this beautiful country early. And inwardly a few of them determined they would wend their way not with the old English stiff upper lip but with a middle finger extended and a defiant grin. They have left Wales as the standard-bearers now.

End of the world: The men who won't be around for 2015

Mark Cueto, wing, 31

Regular pick under Martin Johnson, had back trouble at the World Cup but scored three tries against Romania and another yesterday.

Nick Easter, No 8, 33

Raised a second-half gallop in support of Jonny Wilkinson but has been suffering by comparison withfast-breaking back-row forwards.

Jonny Wilkinson, fly-half, 32

Playing abroad will count against him if the RFU stick to their guns, and anyway surely has nothing left to prove to an adoring public.

Lewis Moody, flanker, 33

File him in the dictionary under never-say-die. But the captain struggled to make an impact as an openside flanker and never looked quite fit.

Lee Mears, hooker, 32

Popular tourist who added this World Cup trip to his achievement playing a Test for the Lions two years ago.

Tom Palmer, lock, 32

On the other hand, if Simon Shaw is still here at 38, perhaps the shaggy-haired Palmer can make it to England 2015.

Andrew Sheridan, prop, 31

Too many shoulder injuries for hisown good and invalided out of this tournament early.

Steve Thompson, hooker, 33

Amazing to get this far after original retirement with neck problems.

Mike Tindall, centre, 33

Turns 34 on Tuesday week – has been Martin Johnson's go-to man as a defensive organiser but must bow out.


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