England learn whatever goes on tour stays in the headlines

Are we having a fit of moral panic over a rugby team's antics? Brian Viner reports

The England rugby union player Mark Cueto, asserting that the media have greatly exaggerated his teammates' off-field excesses during the current World Cup in New Zealand, has reported that he has received supportive text messages from his footballing counterparts. This is like recruiting Boris Johnson as a hair stylist, or marching into battle behind Charles Hawtrey. When England's rugby players turn to England's footballers to help them articulate the message that they are more sinned against than sinning, things have reached a pretty pass indeed.

As it happens, had there been prettier passes from the England team on the field of play, more scintillating runs, more accurate kicks, an altogether better demonstration of the rugby arts, then the outrage would doubtless have been more muted. But England, although safely into the tournament's last eight, and preparing to play the French this weekend for a place in the semi-finals, have not so far looked like world-beaters. And as our international footballers can testify, this makes the tawdry stories – in this case involving an alcohol-fuelled visit to a dwarf-throwing bar; the lewd taunting of a young chambermaid; and Mike Tindall, the vice-captain, hitting the town with a woman who was not his new, royal wife – seem less defensible than they might have been had the fun coincided with a splendid vein of form.

In joining the thunderous chorus of disapproval, the illustrious former England player Jeremy Guscott, who won 65 caps, has pointed out that Sam Warburton, the brilliant captain of a thus-far rampant Welsh team, has not touched a drop of alcohol since the Six Nations tournament six months ago. By stark contrast, the drunken transgressions of the English players, in Guscott's view, are "staggering" and "beyond belief".

Staggering they might be, and in more ways than one. But they are hardly beyond belief. As even Martin Johnson, the beleaguered manager of a beleaguered team, has pointed out, there is a venerable tradition of rugby players bonding over a post-match pint or seven. Guscott might just be an exception among rugby internationals from decades gone by, many of whom are probably offering silent but fervent thanks that their own overseas tours were not accompanied by such a huge media pack, including some reporters sent precisely to catch the players beer-swilling, bed-hopping, or even dwarf-throwing.

For Guscott's old teammate Johnson, the most serious misdemeanour seems to have been the baiting of the chambermaid by James Haskell, Chris Ashton and Dylan Hartley. He has issued a stern reprimand, and since the 6ft 7in Johnson looks stern even when he is laughing his head off, it's reasonable to assume that the wretched trio were made to feel very contrite indeed.

So they should. These are well-paid, fêted professional sportsmen, operating in an era when, rightly or wrongly, their behaviour off the field is routinely subjected to as much scrutiny as their performance on it. If that message wasn't hammered home to them before they set off for New Zealand, they must be reeling from it now.

The stories may, of course, have been inflated. Certainly, the CCTV pictures of Tindall in the embrace of a woman said now to be his former girlfriend are less than damning. On the other hand, the evening was rather longer than he first admitted, when he conveniently forgot that he had gone on to a second Queenstown bar with his companion, before returning to the team hotel.

Does any of this really matter? Are we not somehow complicit in the whole sorry nonsense if we pick over Tindall's muddled accounts of his night out? As Lord Macauley wrote more than 150 years ago, there is no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality. Of course, Macauley never saw international rugby players in a dwarf-tossing bar, but the men who have stepped out of line in New Zealand (and it is still only a minority) are probably guilty more than anything of crass naivety, and of saddling Johnson with the kind of agenda in his press conferences that he, perhaps being naive himself, hardly expected.

England may still rise to the occasion – and rise, too, in the collective estimation. But the sweet chariot has swung mighty low.

Off pitch and off message: when England loses the media game

No cigar, please

Controversy surrounded images of the England football team following their disappointing exit from last year's World Cup. They were pictured sitting around a bottle-strewn table with Aaron Lennon enjoying a cigar. The party atmosphere was slightly unjustified given it followed the 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany.

Freddie all at sea

England's cricketers brushed off a dismal performance in their first world cup match in 2007 by going on an all-night Caribbean bender – just two days before their second took place. In the early hours, vice-captain Freddie Flintoff had to be rescued iafter allegedly falling off a pedalo somewhat intoxicated.

Not Bobby's dazzler

Sir Bobby Moore was preparing for a match against Brazil in the 1970 World Cup when he was detained by Colombian authorities on suspicion of stealing a £625 diamond and emerald bracelet. He was cleared to carry on playing at the time and in 2003 government papers revealed the suspect was actually a woman.

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