England will spend the first three weeks of next month's World Cup in Dunedin, the home of old-fashioned rucking (now illegal), the Carisbrook "House of Pain" (now replaced by a spanking new stadium, complete with roof) and... not much else, according to popular opinion. Those players left wondering how they might survive a long south-island September without a drink were therefore thankful for Martin Johnson's assurance that alcohol would not be banned, or even particularly frowned upon, during the big tournament.
"I don't want to get too petty about things," the manager said as he prepared to head for Heathrow with 29 of his 30 squad members, the exception being the veteran lock Simon Shaw, who fell victim to an outbreak of "Dublin belly" after Saturday's warm-up victory over Ireland and postponed his flight for 24 hours or so.
"No, there'll be no alcohol ban, and I'm not one to impose travel restrictions either. I'm quite happy for the wives and girlfriends, all of whom are very sensible and supportive, to come out when they choose. As part of the switching-off process, it's the best thing you can have as a player.
"We're dealing with blokes, with adults. It was like that when I started playing rugby at a senior level and it's no different just because the game is now professional. Things are far more organised these days, but it's still down to players to make sensible decisions. I trust them to do that. If it turns out that I can't trust them, there'll be a simple decision for me to ma ke."
Johnson was supported every step of the way by his captain, Lewis Moody. "We've spoken about it as a group and I've said my piece," commented the Bath flanker, who is still undergoing intensive treatment on his troublesome right knee but insists he is on track to train fully ahead of the opening pool match with Argentina in 12 days' time. "I won't dwell on the inner workings of the squad, but we're a highly professional group and very dedicated to each other. At the end of the day, we're all adults. One of us [the aforementioned Shaw] is almost 40!"
By the time the party has shaken off its collective jetlag, those carrying minor injuries – Mark Cueto and Mike Tindall among the backs, Tom Wood and Nick Easter among the forwards – should be in a position to resume their preparations. In addition, Johnson anticipates that Ben Youngs, the Leicester scrum-half whose slow recovery from knee surgery early in the summer prevented him playing in any of the warm-up fixtures, will return to the thick of it when serious training gets under way in Dunedin. "I think the trip to Dublin, where we found ourselves playing a game in the face of considerable disruption, did us a lot of good," the manager continued.
"It was almost like a mini-World Cup, in terms of dealing with sudden injuries and finding ways to adapt. You want everyone fit all the time, obviously, but it didn't do us any harm to have Delon Armitage playing on the wing for an hour, to see Tom Croft operating on the open-side flank and Courtney Lawes performing on the blind."
Having played a high level of rugby in New Zealand during his teens – the silver-ferned community were very keen on him staying and challenging for All Black honours – the manager knows as much as anyone in the northern hemisphere about the reality of the union game in those far-away parts.
"World Cups are about handling pressure, and this one is being held in an intense rugby environment," he said. "It's about performing over a long period and not getting distracted. All that matters is winning your games, even if it's by a point.
"We know how teams like New Zealand and Australia like to approach things, but if you play one off the ruck or kick the ball in the air and chase, it's still rugby. You can win World Cups doing that."
So what does he expect from the Dunedin populace, who will provide the lion's share of the audience for England's games against the Pumas, Georgia and Romania? "I'd like to think we'll get a little local support," Johnson replied. He did not sound terribly convinced by his own words, and when he was reminded that Dunedin is a city with a rich Scottish heritage, and that Scotland happened to be in the same World Cup pool as England, he abandoned the idea. "Dunedin? That's a Gaelic word for Edinburgh, isn't it?" he asked. Indeed so.
The Wasps forward Dan Ward-Smith, an outside bet for a World Cup place this time last year, has retired from rugby on medical advice after failing to recover from a spinal injury suffered in April.Reuse content