Romeo Gontineac appeared more than a little jittery in naming what amounted to a shadow Romanian side to play England in tomorrow's penultimate pool game at Otago Stadium, but when it came to unease, Mike Tindall was in a different universe entirely. In fact, he looked about as comfortable as a polar bear in a rainforest. But for a series of beetle-browed interjections from his manager, Martin Johnson, the World Cup-winning centre and occasional national captain would have been buried under the weight of a hundred different questions, all asking the same thing.
Could Tindall's mind really be in the right place, following such widespread coverage of his "boys' night out" behaviour in Queenstown a week and a half previously and in light of the imminent arrival of his good lady wife? The Gloucester midfielder, pressed on this subject every which way, barely summoned a response. "I'm just getting on with training and hoping to be picked," he said, rather pathetically.
When he was reminded that rugby followers back home did not expect to see senior players boozing themselves stupid during a World Cup tournament and was invited to show some contrition, he looked momentarily as though he might. Then Johnson intervened. "I've talked about what occurred: it happened last week, we had the conversation last week, we've had a game since and we have another one coming up," he said, brusqueness personified. "This is old news. We've moved on." And that was that, resoundingly so. Tindall mooched off to his room as the manager held court on the challenge ahead, if indeed that is what it is.
The England line-up had been well flagged: Tindall back at inside centre, Jonny Wilkinson alongside him at No 10, Steve Thompson in at hooker for Dylan Hartley, Mark Cueto on the left wing for the first time in the competition. More interesting was the Romanian team, confirmed by the admirable Gontineac a few hours previously. No Mihaita Lazar, Marius Tincu or Paulica Ion in the front row; no Valentin Ursache at lock; no Daniel Carpo at No 8.
Gontineac openly acknowledged earlier in the week that he was wrestling with his team selection: not because he thought Romania had a cat's hope in hell of beating England, but because a more winnable game, against Georgia, would be played only four days later – one of which would be spent travelling from Dunedin to Palmerston North. It does the World Cup no good to see players of the quality of Tincu and Carpo sitting out what should be their country's most significant contest of the tournament, but their coach is entirely blameless. We must blame the organisers instead. They, after all, are the ones responsible for a fixture programme so loaded against the less powerful nations that it gives rank injustice a bad name.
Johnson did his level best to say the right things – "Romania are a proud rugby nation"; "they'll be strong and direct and they'll scrummage well"; "if you get it wrong in international rugby you pay the price" and so on – but he knows better than anyone that if his players fail to win by 60 clear points, there is something badly wrong somewhere. A decade ago, the Oaks lost an autumn international at Twickenham by a record margin, scoring precisely no points in answer to England's 134. The two countries have not met since.
Interest, such as it is, centres on a handful of red-rose players in need of a decent showing. Ben Foden's work at full-back has been some way short of terrific, but it may be that Cueto's presence will give him the reassurance he needs. Ben Youngs? His energetic cameo contribution against Argentina in the opening match was offset by a deeply disappointing effort in the Georgia game, during which he was caught in possession more times in the space of 70 minutes than in the whole of his Test career hitherto.
As for Tindall, he will have to be judged differently tomorrow. After spending a week splashed across celebrity websites the world over and featuring prominently in the many dozens of publications taking an interest in his after-dark behaviour, it will be a minor miracle if he delivers an error-free performance. England probably need a tougher work-out ahead of the difficult match with Scotland in eight days' time, but from the centre's individual perspective, he can do without being tested too severely.
And then, as ever, there is Wilkinson, who spoke with great authority following Monday's team meeting, during which those involved in the shambolic display against Georgia were held to account. It goes without saying that no one – certainly not Tindall – will have prepared more professionally or more minutely for tomorrow's contest, but it remains the case that Toby Flood, his rival for the outside-half role, is the more likely man to bring the best out of England's back division.
On this topic, Johnson was evasive. Having commended Flood on his success in "attacking space" and freeing his wide runners from deep in the Georgia game, the manager would not be drawn into a discussion on whether he expected the more conservative, deeper-lying Wilkinson to do something similar. Instead, he banged on about the value of having two high-calibre 10s in the squad before remarking, with a grin: "There. I hope that didn't answer your question."
On the injury front, the Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter and the Saracens prop Matt Stevens remain on the casualty list – the former with a dodgy back, the latter with a sprained ankle. Thomas Waldrom of Leicester, flown in as cover for Easter and currently occupying a room in a hotel just up the street from the team, continues to await further instructions. As for the hole in the squad left by the injured front-rower Andrew Sheridan, there is no sign of it being filled in.
"We don't need to do anything immediately in terms of a replacement," Johnson said. "We're holding what is in effect a wildcard and we'll see how things unfold before playing it."Reuse content