Johnson's faith in Tindall is obscuring the central solution

England 67 Romania 3: Cueto and Ashton prove worth but inside the flying wings there is cause for concern
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The Independent Online

Funny things, statistics. England, scoring pretty much at will in their penultimate pool match against what amounted to a second-string Romanian team, somehow ended up with 67 points: precisely half the number they amassed the last time they met the Eastern Europeans on Test business, almost exactly a decade ago. Does this mean they are only half as good? Quite possibly. That 2001 side contained several of the players who would go to Australia as favourites for the Webb Ellis Trophy and deliver on the deal. Here on the other side of the Tasman, you have to look very hard to find someone prepared to predict a red-rose triumph in this tournament.

Martin Johnson slept soundly on his last night in Dunedin, all the same. He had watched his players go through the card on the penalty front for the third week in succession – a round dozen were conceded, by all sorts of people for all kinds of reasons – but was relieved, if not delighted, by the stylish nature of the victory and, every bit as importantly, by the absence of significant orthopaedic consequences. "It was one of those games where you get to 70 minutes and think: 'Right ref, call it off'," the manager said. "The last thing we needed was to end up like the Wallabies on Friday night – beating the Americans by plenty but picking up serious injuries late on."

As Johnson went on to explain, odd things can happen in these hopelessly one-sided mismatches: players find themselves giving and receiving passes in unusual positions; being tackled from peculiar angles at unexpected moments; being caught in rucks by opposing forwards so comprehensively knackered that they arrive like tired and emotional late-night gatecrashers just as the party is ending and cause all manner of mayhem. "The Romanians are proud, passionate players and they were prepared to take a punt at the breakdown, to take a chance with the referee," he continued. "Fair play to them. I'd have done exactly the same if I'd been one of them. From our point of view, it was important to get the job done and get off the pitch."

In hinting that the official concerned, the excellent Romain Poite of France, gave the Oaks a little more latitude than he might have done, Johnson indicated that he was prepared to forgive most, if not all, of those penalised. Certainly, he was nowhere near as stroppy about lack of discipline as he had been following the deeply flawed victory over Georgia the previous week. And being a sporting sort, there was no reason for him to be. Heaven knows, the tier-two nations have been given precious little by the organisers of this competition, apart from the worst hotels in every town and a fistful of four-day turnarounds. If a referee cuts them some slack to ease the pain of a 60-point shellacking, who's complaining?

If there was a serious question for Johnson to ponder coming off this supersoft fixture – his opposite number, Romeo Gontineac, confessed afterwards that he had left out his best players, such as they are, because he considered the forthcoming meeting with the Georgians as "a priority match against a team of our level" – it was whether proceedings had in any way prepared his team for this weekend's climactic game with Scotland, who will be approximately 100 per cent more competitive.

"Is the attitude right? We'll see how tough we are mentally when we face the Scots," the manager said. "I think we were in a good place before this match: if we hadn't been, it would have been pretty obvious out there. But really, the tournament starts now. These big games – and that's all we'll face from now on – are magnified by being part of a World Cup: the build-up, the pressure ... everything is more intense. We'll have to change our training now, make it sharper and more specific." And selection? Will that have to be sharper and more specific too? "We have choices to make, absolutely," Johnson replied.

Among those who muddied the selectorial waters on Saturday were Mark Cueto and Mike Tindall, for entirely different reasons. Cueto marked his first tournament appearance with three tries in 11 minutes either side of the first quarter-mark, the third of which required a good deal of scoring – a stretch to the left corner under pressure from the fast-approaching Stefan Ciuntu. Among the Sale wing's subsequent achievements was a textbook turnover on Nicolae Nere at a defensive ruck. When a mere back forces a pug-ugly loose-head prop into coughing up possession, he knows his stars are in the right alignment.

Tindall? He was probably still seeing stars after meeting his new wife for the first time since living it up – or rather, down – in Queenstown, dwarf-throwing capital of the southern hemisphere. Whatever the whys and wherefores, his performance at inside centre was a cause for concern, a fact underlined at the very last knockings when he butchered an attempted tap-pass to Delon Armitage and had to retreat 80-odd metres to prevent the Romanians scoring from an old-fashioned foot rush straight out of the 1890s.

Johnson has dug a mighty deep hole for himself here. Having picked Jonny Wilkinson ahead of Toby Flood as his starting outside-half for this game, there was every opportunity to pair the two of them after the interval, which England reached 34 points to the good, with the all-important try-scoring bonus stowed safely in the kitbag. Instead, the manager withdrew Wilkinson, whose goal-kicking had again looked fragile despite the controlled indoor conditions under the tongue-tying tetrafluoroethylene roof, and sent on Flood in his stead. It seems the coaching staff have rejected the obvious answer to their midfield problem, if indeed they asked themselves the question in the first place.

There is nothing much wrong with the England line-out. Mike Ford, the defence coach, says its mysteries are "like something out of the Da Vinci Code" and while a bunch of Queenstown dwarfs would have stripped the Romanians bare – their operation was straight out of Janet and John – the combination of the two Toms, lock Palmer and flanker Croft, is as good as anything seen in the tournament to date, although the former will feel the heat from Courtney Lawes, back in the mix after suspension, when Johnson and his acolytes sit down to consider the line-up for Scotland. Unfortunately, the scrum is not quite such a good news story. For a time on Saturday, the Romanian front-row understudies made life uncomfortable for both Alex Corbisiero and David Wilson, the two England props.

At least the X-factor boys are back in town, so to speak. Both Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs, the two well-springs of England's attacking game, were at their vibrant best, albeit against opponents wholly unequipped to deal with them. "It was the pace that hurt us," Gontineac confessed. "England have a strong game, and when they play quickly it is impossible for us to hold them." The fact that the Scots find nothing impossible against England does not mean they will handle the Northampton wing and the Leicester scrum-half with ease, or anything resembling it. In many respects, these are the two men who hold the future of this red-rose campaign in their hands.

England: Tries Cueto 3, Ashton 3, Youngs, Foden, Tuilagi, Croft. Conversions Flood 4, Wilkinson 3. Penalty Wilkinson. Romania: Penalty Dumbrava.

England: B Foden (D Armitage, 51); C Ashton, M Tuilagi, M Tindall, M Cueto; J Wilkinson (T Flood, h-t), B Youngs (R Wigglesworth, 64); A Corbisiero (Cole, 60), S Thompson (L Mears, 50), D Cole (D Wilson, h-t), L Deacon (S Shaw, 60), T Palmer, T Croft, L Moody (capt, T Wood, 64), J Haskell.

Romania: F Vlaicu (C Nicolae, 74); S Ciuntu (C Gal, h-t), I Cazan, I Dumitras, A Apostol; M Dumbrava, L Sirbu (V Calafeteanu, h-t); N Nere, B Zebega Suman (M Tincu, 50), S Florea (P Ion, 64), V Poparlan, C Petre (capt, M Macovei, 52), S Burcea, C Ratiu (D Ianus, 61), O Tonita.

Referee: R Poite (France).

England: Man for man marking

Ben Foden Nothing much to report. There was space allover the field, but the full-back struggled to locate any of it. 5/10

Chris Ashton Highly encouraging. The hunter went a-hunting with greater intent than in recent matches and came in with a bagful. 8

Manu Tuilagi Shooting fish in a barrel. Far too strong for the Romanians in open field. He will face tougher propositions. 7.5

Mike Tindall The inside centre position really doesn't suit him. After a tough fortnight off the field, there was little respite on it. 4

Mark Cueto Back in the side after injury, and back in the tries. Hardly tested, but his rugby was full of intelligence. 7.5

Jonny Wilkinson Nothing brilliant, nothing calamitous. We know the things he does wonderfully, we know the things he barely does at all. 6

Ben Youngs When he plays like this, as opposed to the way he did against Georgia, there is something of a matchwinner about him. 7.5

Alex Corbisiero Not entirely happy at the scrum against Silviu Florea and left the field with a recurrence of his calf injury. 5

Steve Thompson He huffs and puffs, but still plays energetically after all these years. An asset, provided he keeps his discipline. 6

Dan Cole The England scrum deteriorated when he left the field and improved again when he returned. This tells us something. 6.5

Louis Deacon One of life's 'solid but unspectacular' sorts. Just the man to square up to Romanian-style, forward-dominated rugby. 6.5

Tom Palmer Excellent in the 'buffet' line-out – he helped himself all match – but still short of his best around the field. 5.5

Tom Croft Pickings at the line-out were so easy, he won ball standing still. Around the field, there were flashes of inspiration. 6

Lewis Moody More involved than in the Georgia game. His collision with Tindall cramped his style, but will have settled for this. 6

James Haskell Perhaps he was due a quiet one. Scruffy at the scrum base and contained by Ovidiu Tonita, the best Romanian. 5

Replacements:

David Wilson Originally the fifth of five props, now fourth of four. Played both sides without catching the eye in either role. 4.5

Toby Flood Unusually, he kicked better than Wilkinson from hand and tee. Still looks more likely to get things moving out wide. 6

Lee Mears Like Wilson, his Bath clubmate, he may spend a lot of time watching from here on in. Adequate. 5

Delon Armitage The game was long won by the time he appeared on the field and little of the late glut of possession came his way. 5

Simon Shaw Rumbled around with his customary relish, but barely needed to raise a gallop. One of the many to concede a penalty. 5

Tom Wood The most striking of the forward substitutes, driving Ashton upfield with a leg-pumping surge and mauling strongly. 6.5

Richard Wigglesworth Wholly overshadowed by Youngs' startling contribution, but too knowing to mess anything up. Perfectly acceptable. 5

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