Martin Johnson was still cursing England's expensive lapses in discipline yesterday, just as James Haskell was cursing himself for sinning his way into the bin at Twickenham four days ago. Quite who got their curses in first was a moot point, but there was no doubting the mood of the moment. Anyone picking up a yellow card without very good reason in the Six Nations game against Wales at the Millennium Stadium this weekend will be in deep doo-doos, for the manager – who was not exactly a paragon of virtue during his playing days – has seen the light.
"People are being sent to the sin-bin for doing silly things," he said, clearly concerned by his side's inability to keep a full complement on the field for longer than a few minutes at a time. "We're in the chaotic world of international rugby here and the passions run high, but amid the passion and emotion, players have to be able to think clearly. The challenge is to make good decisions, not do things that put you off the pitch. If people are going to offend persistently, it will become an issue for me."
Haskell cannot be pilloried as a persistent offender, even though Saturday's spell of penance was his second in as many Tests, and he does not plan to become one. "I don't get sent to the sin-bin at club level and I'm not a dirty player," the Wasps flanker said, with feeling. "But it's a fact that we haven't been doing ourselves any good in this respect and I have to accept that the yellow card I picked up against Italy last weekend was avoidable, and therefore pretty silly. Like anyone else who aspires to be a world-class player, I have to keep myself in check."
His trip on Gonzalo Canale, the Azzurri centre, towards the end of the first half was hardly the worst assault ever seen on a rugby field. As Brian Smith, the England attack coach, pointed out yesterday: "We're not talking about a cynical hack, or anything like that."
But like the similarly minor misdemeanours committed by Lee Mears, Toby Flood and Tom Rees against the All Blacks before Christmas, it resulted in England playing a man short for 10 difficult minutes. All told, they have spent 60 of the last 160 minutes in a state of numerical disadvantage. More of the same against Wales this weekend will cost them, massively.
"Most of these things are down to over-eagerness," Haskell explained. "In my case against Italy, I was doing as I would normally do – that is to say, trying to put myself in the way of a guy making a break. Unfortunately for me, Canale happened to be really quick and I caught him. It wasn't planned, or deliberate: even in the limited amount of international rugby I've played, I've learned enough to know that you can't go around tripping people up. The thing is, I was yellow-carded for a fairly innocuous offence. That makes it silly."
The incident generated a good deal of comment, much of it from former internationals who were not always Persil white in their behaviour on the big occasion. "A lot of those making comments knew what it was to be penalised," Haskell said. "Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but I have a secret smile when I hear some of this stuff."
Did he think there might be a deeper malaise running through the England squad that could explain these recent acts of indiscipline? Lawrence Dallaglio, very much a mentor of Haskell's at Wasps, ventured to suggest that there was something of the "big I am" about certain players who, in his judgement, had shown next to nothing at international level and should therefore concentrate on proving themselves as good in public as they considered themselves to be in private.
"I don't want to disagree with what Lawrence says," Haskell replied, carefully. "I come from a club that goes out of its way to ensure that no one is allowed to become a 'Big Time Charlie', or anything like it. All I can say is that I don't see a problem in this England squad."
On this issue, Johnson was in full agreement. "I go on what I see in training," he said, "and what I see is a group of pretty humble guys working very hard to improve their games." But if the general behaviour of his players is not of immediate concern, the self-defeating outbreak of yellow-card offences is definitely getting to him. "If those incidents hadn't happened against Italy, we wouldn't be talking about discipline. But they did, we are and it is something that has to be addressed."
Far from mellow yellow: England's bad boys
England have collected six yellow cards in five games under Martin Johnson:
29 November 2008
England 6 New Zealand 32
Yellow cards: James Haskell (swinging arm), Toby Flood (high tackle), Lee Mears (hands in ruck), Tom Rees (failure to roll away from tackle)
7 February 2009
England 36 Italy 11
Haskell (trip), Shane Geraghty (dangerous play)
* England have conceded 62 penalties under Johnson: 13 v Pacific Islanders, 10 v Australia, 9 v South Africa, 18 v New Zealand and 12 v Italy.
* Haskell and Andrew Sheridan are the biggest culprits, conceding seven each. Danny Care has conceded five.
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