The autumn international series was not exactly a side-splitter for England, so Martin Johnson and his colleagues were in dire need of something to smile at as the draw for the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand unfolded in London yesterday.
When they avoided the big three from the southern hemisphere – the Springboks, the Wallabies and, most importantly, the All Blacks themselves – the red-rose contingent felt like laughing out loud. Then they thought about it, and realised that Pool B was anything but funny.
If Argentina and Scotland are the only opponents that matter – even at this stage, almost three years shy of the event, it is safe to suggest that neither the best of the European also-rans, quite possibly Georgia, nor the team emerging from the dead-beats' repechage tournament will stand a snowball's chance in hell of staging an upset – they are likely to matter an awful lot.
England, currently lost in Nowheresville after winning the title in 2003 and finishing runners-up in 2007, have the potential to top the group, but they also have it in them to finish third and miss out on the knock-out stage.
Scotland, growing in stature under the guidance of Frank Hadden and his revamped coaching team, have never failed to find a way into the World Cup quarter-finals. The Pumas, meanwhile, finished third in last year's tournament after twice beating France, the hosts, and seeing off both the Irish and the Scots during the course of a memorable South American uprising.
If the relevant pool matches were being played over the next fortnight, only a fool would gamble a penny of his credit-crunched savings on the outcome.
Put simply, Pool B is both the easiest for England to win, and the easiest for them to mess up. In any other grouping – even Pool D, which sees Wales lumbered with Fiji and Samoa, both of whom know what it is to end the Red Dragonhood's interest in a global tournament – Johnson would have been completely confident of finishing at least second, thereby ruling out any thought of an early flight home. As things are, he cannot be confident at all. England will travel to New Zealand as an accident waiting to happen.
"This will be a challenge for us, but not an insurmountable one," said Hadden, whose side beat England the last time they met, and effectively caused the run on Brian Ashton's reputation that ended with his sacking as red-rose coach. Johnson, meanwhile, was his usual guarded self. "The old days of a major nation winning one serious game and guaranteeing themselves a place at the business end of the tournament have gone," he remarked.
England and Scotland have met only once in the World Cup – a semi-final at Murrayfield in 1991, which boiled down to a Rob Andrew drop goal for the visitors and a Gavin Hastings miskick in front of the sticks for the hosts.
"I was playing for Leicester at Sale that day," recalled Johnson. "I watched the match on the television in the bar, but I don't have much recollection of it. What I do remember is the result of our game. We lost."
While Wales find themselves in a beast of a group – add the world champions, South Africa, to the twin perils from the Pacific Islands and you have something approaching a "pool of death" – the Irish must be happy indeed.
Australia, the top seeds in Pool C, are currently the most beatable of the Sanzar nations, while Italy are struggling more than most with the experimental law variations (ELVs) imposed on the game by the International Rugby Board.
If the maul, withering on the vine under the ELVs, is not restored in all its pug-ugly glory at a crucial board meeting next May, the Azzurri's chances of making an impact in 2011 will be slim indeed.
Should England win their group, they will expect to play France in the last eight. If they finish second, their opponents will almost certainly be the All Blacks.
They would be advised to take the first of these routes, not the second. Assuming the Kiwis do the necessary – they lose so rarely in their own country, they will be short-priced title favourites, despite the decades of World Cup hurt they have suffered since winning the inaugural tournament in 1987 – a winning England side would not face them until the final.
Yesterday's draw, made unusually early because of the difficulties faced by New Zealand-based administrators in organising accommodation and transport for the biggest influx of visitors in the country's history, raised the probability of an opening match between New Zealand and France in Auckland.
As France knocked out the All Blacks at the quarter-final stage last year, the haka that night will be something to behold.
2011 World Cup Draw
New Zealand, France, Tonga, Americas 1, Asia 1
Argentina, England, Scotland, Europe 1, Play-off winner
Australia, Ireland, Italy, Europe 2, Americas 2
South Africa, Wales, Fiji, Oceania 1, Africa 1
Quarter-final 1: Pool B Winner v Pool A Runner-up
Quarter-final 2: Pool C Winner v Pool D Runner-up
Quarter-final 3: Pool A Winner v Pool B Runner-up
Quarter-final 4: Pool D Winner v Pool C Runner-up
Semi-final 1: Quarter-
final 1 winner v Quarter-
final 2 winner
Semi-final 2: Quarter-
final 3 winner v Quarter-
final 4 winner.
*FINAL: Eden Park (Auckland, capacity 62,000)
*Decisions on match venues, as well as the match schedule, are expected to be announced in March or April next year. Team bases will be revealed in November.Reuse content