England at the World Cup - Shocking on the field, shocking off it...
Manager has to say sorry yet again as the 'Dunedin three' and further Tindall allegations add to his travails
Early last evening New Zealand time, the England wing Delon Armitage was cited for a dangerous "shoulder-first" tackle on the Scotland full-back Chris Paterson during the ultra-tense World Cup pool game at Eden Park the previous night. The red-rose hierarchy could not have been surprised: for one thing, Armitage's challenge looked dodgy the moment it happened; for another, so much else had gone wrong during the day, there was every reason to suspect that another calamity might be lurking just around the corner.
England are playing an absolute blinder here, albeit off the field rather than on it. Johnson awoke to news that one tabloid paper back home had identified the wing Chris Ashton, the hooker Dylan Hartley and the back-row forward James Haskell as the men involved in an alleged harassment incident with a hotel chambermaid during the stay in Dunedin at the start of the tournament. Personal apologies were made at the time, by Johnson on behalf of the team and by the players on behalf of themselves. With the issue now in the open, the manager had no option but to make a public apology to go with the private one.
Just as he was preparing to address the topic, he was told of a second newspaper story concerning another of his errant players: the World Cup-winning centre and recently anointed royal-in-law Mike Tindall, whose drunken behaviour at a club in Queenstown had overshadowed the second week of England's campaign. It seems Tindall's memory of his movements on that night had been a little hazy – heaven knows why – and that as his initial account to Johnson had proved inaccurate, apologies were flying around from him too. "Sorry" seems to be the common word.
"Mike wasn't trying to mislead anyone – he just got the recall wrong," Johnson said, rather unconvincingly, amid rumours that yet more security-camera footage of Tindall and a female companion may soon emerge from somewhere or other. And the Dunedin three? "I'm angry with them and I've reprimanded them. What they thought was humour, a light-hearted exchange with a member of the hotel staff, obviously wasn't taken that way by the girl concerned. They had no idea how upset she would become. It was three weeks ago, it's been investigated thoroughly and I've dealt with it."
A mere reprimand? Did the manager consider that to be sufficient? "Believe me, they know my feelings on the matter," Johnson responded. "All this stuff – it's exactly what we talked about before we came here. Because of the status England players have, because we're in this country, because it's a World Cup... everything is magnified and people have to understand that reality. I'm annoyed they've left themselves open to it, and left the team open to it. People have rallied around Mike and he's getting on with things, but none of this has been great for us.
"I'm spending 90 per cent of my time with the media talking about this kind of thing, so the perception is that this is all that's going on. Actually, we spend 99 per cent of our time together preparing for the next game. It's the world we're in. These are good guys and I trust them. I have to trust them. The important thing is to respond in a balanced way."
Johnson had just taken on the managership, but was not in the country, when four England players spent the second half of their 2008 tour of New Zealand declining to help Auckland police with their inquiries into an accusation of serious sexual assault. When the former national captain did visit here with his team, in June of last year, the visit was too brief for anyone to cause trouble. This tournament, however, has been of the "one thing after another" variety: Courtney Lawes' suspension after the opening match against Argentina; the Tindall business; the enforced internal suspension of two members of the back-room staff – Dave Alred and Paul Stridgeon – over a "ball manipulation" misdemeanour against Romania; the incident in Dunedin; the citing of Armitage.
Asked whether he felt isolated – whether he might appreciate some visible support from one of the travelling Rugby Football Union suit-and-tie contingent – Johnson took a fiercely independent line. "I'm the manager, this is my team and it's my responsibility," he said. "I'm from the RFU – I'm the official face. I've let the union know about where we are." And he ended with an abrupt pay-off line: "It's the way I've decided to handle it. They don't tell me what to do."
Unsurprisingly, he was happy to start talking about next Saturday's quarter-final with France – not that he had the first idea what to expect from a Tricolore team in conflict with itself following the defeat by Tonga on Saturday. "It's situation normal, isn't it?" he said. "Who knows what to expect from the French. It makes them very dangerous." He will receive no help from Marc Lièvremont on the matter, for the coach of Les Bleus is also at a complete loss to explain his team's vulnerabilities and peculiarities at this tournament. "I thought I had experienced everything in terms of shame," Lièvremont said in the latest in a long line of extraordinary addresses, "but this time round, it's been an extremely violent feeling. Each missed pass, each missed tackle, I took as a deep personal failure.
"Yesterday, I would have liked us to gather around with a few drinks, to talk, to share thoughts, to tell each other that it's still a beautiful adventure. And I was disappointed. I got us some beers to release the pressure and we all split in different directions. It's a kind of disappointment." A divide in the group, then? "For now there is no divide, even if it may look that way," Lièvremont replied. "I am a fighter, I have respect for the men and I believe they can pick themselves up. I have experienced and talented players... but perhaps not as talented as I thought." And England thought they had problems.
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