The Rugby Football Union, in the formidable shape of its chief disciplinary officer Judge Jeff Blackett, last night launched an access-all-areas inquiry into the leaking of three confidential reviews into England's ill-starred World Cup campaign in New Zealand – reports that painted a black picture of confusion, indiscipline and division amongst the coaching staff, the players and pretty much everyone else involved. But even if the governing body identifies the individual responsible, who will be in very serious trouble if unmasked, they will be hard pressed to find any salvation.
English rugby is lying in the gutter and looking anywhere but at the stars, especially now that the Professional Game Board – the body set up to bring the RFU, the Premiership clubs and the players' union together – has proved itself unable to keep its secrets. Some Twickenham insiders suggested that the leak was a deliberate attempt to damage the board's credibility and undermine its growing influence.
The three reports, all of them extremely damning of the World Cup campaign in their different ways, were presented to the board a week ago. Yesterday, scores of pages of startling accusations, from players who agreed to participate on the grounds that their views would remain private, were in the public domain. "Why would any player ever volunteer to go through such a process ever again?" asked Simon Shaw, at 38 the most senior player in the elite squad. "It's very difficult to accept that such a thing has happened."
Shaw was particularly upset at the open criticism of fellow players – especially the captain, Lewis Moody, who not only had his leadership qualities questioned by some of those who performed under him but was also accused of spending too much time on commercial affairs. "The disappointing thing for me is that this should be happening in rugby," Shaw said. "The whole point of rugby is that you play as a team and stand as a team. For individuals to be singled out ... that's not what it's meant to be about. Whatever decisions the people on the RFU now make, whoever they put in charge, they have to make sure the governing body itself is right. Trying to make England the best team in the world against the background we've had over the last year or so is incredibly difficult."
While Moody felt obliged to defend himself – "I am confident I did the captain's job to the best of my ability, but if some of the players felt that was not enough, I will have to learn to live with it," he said – the chairman of the Rugby Players' Association, Damian Hopley, said he was "devastated that our members' trust has been so publicly betrayed". He added: "If England want to regain their status as a respected rugby nation, it is imperative we stop the rot at the top of the game and show some much-needed integrity."
Hugh Robertson, the sports minister, said he had already impressed on the RFU the need for a shake-up of the game's governance – the development of a better balance between "those that represent the vested interest in the game and those who bring external expertise". He said: "The important thing is that the RFU sees this as an opportunity to reform. Sport in this country has quite a lot of governance that is stuck in a previous era and in rugby's case, I don't think there has been a full transition from the old amateur days."
To rub it in, the appeal of disgraced England centre Mike Tindall against a £25,000 fine imposed for drunken behaviour at the World Cup will be heard at Twickenham today. What price a leak of the verdict?
'He was just too loyal': What the players said
On the England manager Martin Johnson
"Johnno was surrounded by the wrong people. We just wanted Johnno to have the bollocks to take action, especially after the Mike Tindall night. He was too loyal and that was his downfall."
On Jonny Wilkinson's kicking coach Dave Alred
"We had kicking problems and yet almost every morning, who do you see swanning around in a polo shirt about to play another round of golf but Alred. It's not the image you should be giving off that this is like a holiday to you. 'Ballgate' was the worst incident in my mind because it was cheating."
On Lewis Moody
"We didn't really have a good captain. I think Johnno liked Moody as he left the team talks to Johnno. He wasn't very good at team talks, just fucked a lot."
On forwards coach John Wells
"He was out of his depth. There must be 20 coaches in the Premiership who would be better. He missed serious detail in lineout play. Good at the technical side but pretty archaic."
On attack coach Brian Smith
"I would be delighted if he went. Our attack play was boring, uninventive, lacklustre, even schoolboy at times. He was out of his depth."
On fly-half Wilkinson
"Jonny Wilkinson is not an attacking threat any more. We really needed [Toby] Flood because he is the one who bosses the team. Floody was part of the reason England played well in the Six Nations."
On defence coach Mike Ford
"His analysis was like a white wall of jargon. Half the time we had no idea what he was talking about. We have buzzwords at our club but the difference is they mean something. It was like banging your head against a brick wall. He was full of pointless stats."
On scrum coach Graham Rowntree
"He was the best of all the coaches. He's ahead of his time."