Are Georgia really 47 points better than they were at the 2003 World Cup? It is at least arguable. Are England 47 points worse? No, but if their first-half performance here was a reliable guide, they are getting there. The men from the Caucasus had less than 96 hours to prepare for this match, having been ordered to operate on the parallel fixture schedule reserved for this tournament's second-class citizens.
England had a full eight days, and although one of those was of the "lost" variety following the tawdry outbreak of midget mayhem in Queenstown, it is impossible to overestimate the advantage this gave them. An advantage they squandered for much of the contest. Eight years ago, Martin Johnson led the England team that beat the Eastern Europeans 84-6 in Perth. Yesterday, he found himself managing a side that could – to hell with it, should – have been behind after an hour.
Merab Kvirikashvili, an extremely useful goal-kicker according to his head coach, Richie Dixon, missed five penalties, three of them some way short of challenging, and as a consequence Georgia drew precious little in the way of a dividend from their territorial dominance.
And what dominance. According to the official statistics, they spent the best part of nine minutes in England's "red zone" during the first half, while England failed to manage as much as a minute in the Georgian 22. Or even half a minute. Embarrassingly, they spent a mere 19 seconds there, virtually all of them in the build-up to Shontayne Hape's second try. A similarly impotent attacking effort against a team serious about winning this title will leave them with an interval deficit too grim to contemplate.
None of this was lost on Johnson, whose after-match demeanour was pancake-flat. "I wouldn't say I was downbeat: just realistic and a little annoyed," he remarked. "There were chances for us to do a lot better than that. We were sloppy, and I don't want us to be that type of team. If we're happy with those standards, we'll be heading for home pretty early. We have to be tough on ourselves, because that wasn't good enough."
If Johnson has a mantra – "It is what it is", his most familiar phrase, doesn't really count, for the very good reason that it doesn't mean anything – his insistence that "this is a simple game" comes closest. He banged that drum again yesterday, time and again to anyone prepared to listen. What got his goat more than anything was the way England overcomplicated their rugby, thereby allowing the Georgians, with their iron strength, to win turnovers at will. That and his players' habit of conceding soft penalties, often at the scrum and even more frequently at the ruck.
"When you go behind on the penalty count, you begin to incur the wrath of the referee," he said, glowering at his audience. "We need to trust our defence a bit more rather than go into situations overenthusiastically. I know we put a big score on Georgia back in 2003 but in physical terms that was a hard game too. It's just that we were more savvy as a team, more ruthless in taking our chances. I have every admiration for what Georgia did out there today, especially after such a short turnaround, but this is a moment for thinking about ourselves. We need to start retaining possession, as Ireland did in beating Australia. That game showed us what it's about at this level. We need to be much better next week, and going forward."
England were back in white yesterday, having worn black against Argentina. It was always a questionable decision to ape the New Zealanders in their own country, but given the problems with the more traditional strip – God alone knows how a manufacturer can produce shirts that display the players' nipples more prominently than their numbers – they might consider switching back again. If they go for a really dark hue and the floodlights fail, they will certainly find life easier.
Even though Matt Stevens, the loose-head prop, set the penalty tally rolling by not shifting his considerable bulk to the satisfaction of the South African referee Jonathan Kaplan, England were seven points to the good inside four minutes. Dimitri Basilaia, the best footballer in the Georgian pack, inexplicably dropped the simplest of high-ball catches, and after Simon Shaw had made some yardage off the fumble, Hape found himself on a 45-metre highway to the line. The much-criticised centre did not break any land-speed records, but he made it with plenty of time to spare. The mystery of the missing Georgian defence is unlikely to be solved quickly.
This was pretty much the last England saw of the ball until Hape doubled his try count early in the second quarter, this time from a distance more in keeping with his strength-speed balance. With Basilaia working intelligently from the base of the set piece and the high-class flanker from the Montellier club, Mamuka Gorgodze, splattering the England forwards all over Otago, the Georgians applied and sustained pressure for minutes on end. There was not even the slightest whiff of injustice when, after Kvirikashvili and Toby Flood had exchanged penalties, Basilaia touched down at the sticks following a traditional No 8's scrum pick-up.
We must say more of Gorgodze at this point, for his performance here must have been among the finest ever produced by a so-called "tier two" player at a World Cup. Born in Tbilisi, he goes by one of two nicknames: "Gorgodzilla" and "Gulliver" – the latter a reference to his ability to reduce opponents to the stature of Lilliputians. Those England players who notoriously spent an evening in the company of small people a little over a week ago were certainly diminished by the 80 minutes they spent in the Georgian's presence yesterday.
It was inevitable that the underdogs would fade after the break: for one thing, the favourites emerged with Johnson's frank and forthright words ringing in their ears; for another, the iniquities of the fixture list meant the Georgians – yes, even the astonishing Gordgodze – were out on their feet well before the end. Yet even though Delon Armitage, the most persuasive of England's wide runners, claimed a smart try down the left within eight minutes of the restart, the former champions continued to make desperately hard work of it until Manu Tuilagi put himself on the end of a short, flat pass from Flood and steamrollered his way to the line a quarter of an hour from time.
So it was that the last, cruel knockings began to unfold. Three minutes after Tuilagi's try, Tom Wood set sail in broken field and presented Chris Ashton with the kind of run-in that always ends with a wave to the crowd, a swallow-dive and a one-handed touchdown. Ashton scored again at the death, after Kaplan declined to call time following an inconclusive scrum and forced the Georgians, now playing with a back-row forward out on the wing, to put their shoulders to the wheel once again.
They deserved so much better, in all sorts of ways. "We're not crying about the fixture schedule," insisted Dixon, and it was not their place to do so. That task should be left to those in the rugby community who still value fairness above commercial convenience.
England: Tries Hape 2, Ashton 2, Armitage, Tuilagi; Conversions Flood 4; Penalty Flood. Georgia: Try Basilaia; Conversion Kvirikashvili; Penalty Kvirikashvili.
England B Foden; C Ashton, M Tuilagi (M Banahan, 71), S Hape, D Armitage; T Flood, B Youngs (J Simpson, 71); M Stevens (Cole, 82), D Hartley (S Thompson, 62), D Cole (A Corbisiero, 66), S Shaw, T Palmer, T Wood (Thompson, 40+4-49), L Moody (capt, T Croft, 59), J Haskell.
Georgia R Gigauri; A Todua (L Datunashvili, 73), D Kacharava, T Zibzibadze, I Machkhaneli (L Khmaladze, h-t); M Kvirikashvili, I Abuseridze (capt, B Samkharadze 66); D Khinchagishvili (A Giorgadze, 57), J Bregvadze, D Kubriashvili (D Zirakashvili, 24), I Zedginidze (Datunashvili, 6-17), V Maisuradze, S Sutiashvili (G Chkhaidze, 33), M Gorgodze, D Basilaia (G Berishvili, 63).
Referee J Kaplan (South Africa).
MAN FOR MAN MARKING
Some twinkle-toed running from deep, but still out of sorts - imprecise and too harem-scarem for comfort. 5/10
Two tries, his first for England this year, will do something for his self-belief, but was not at his best. 5
His try against a tired Georgian defence was eye-catching enough, but he is not quite Ma'a Nonu. 5
His two early scores made life much easier than it might have been, but again, less than wholly convincing. 5
The best of the back-three unit: quick, aggressive, intent on asking awkward questions of his opponents. A try, too. 6
The most impressive figure in the back line, always looking to attack. No obvious problems with the boot, either. 7
A throwback to his poor performances at the back end of last season. Hassled and harried by Irakli Abuseridze. 4
Carried strongly, but spent too much time in the referee's bad books. Ended with a sprained ankle. 4
A rough one from the hooker, who looks deflated at losing top-dog status to Steve Thompson. Was also shown yellow card. 4
Much quieter than against Argentina, although there were one or two important tackles in wide areas. Needs a breather. 5
Played an important role in the opening try and mauled as strongly as ever. The veteran goes on... and on. 5
Ruled the roost at the line-out and tackled well enough, but far from a vintage display. 5
Had his hands full dealing with an outstanding Georgian back row. He will have more profitable days. 5
Nick Easter paled against Fernandez Lobbe of Argentina. England's captain was up against Mamuka Gorgodze. Enough said. 4
A late call-up for the unfit Easter, he relished the hurly-burly more than most. Lung-bursting effort. 6
His appearance coincided with Georgia's slide into exhaustion. Strong at close quarters 5
Looks more aggressive with every passing game and a go-to man at the line-out. 6
Nothing more than a half chance for the prop, so precious little to report. 5
A new cap, he scuttled here and darted there but arrived when the game was dead. 5
One strong burst made the tiring Georgians think twice, but he seems a peripheral figure. 5