You knew it was bad, very bad indeed. You could see it in the leaden performance and mindless indiscipline on the field and the drunken, lemming self-destruction off it, but you couldn't quite know the extent of the failure, the inadequacy of the people involved, until the leaking this week of three official reports into England's World Cup disaster.
Now the extent of the problem is spelled out in almost every line of recrimination, every pathetic revelation not so much of a dark and mirthless parody of a group of professional international sportsmen and their coaches but a broken, cheap-jack culture.
These reports do not provide the basis for learning lessons, for rebuilding levels of mutual respect and self-motivation. No, they are cause to reach out for a hosepipe.
English rugby union, which not so long ago gave us one of the most squalid, dispiriting little scandals in the history of any sport, the "Bloodgate" affair, really does need hosing down.
In the narrowest context of the future of the international team, who represent the host nation at the 2015 World Cup, there is a more practical long-term suggestion.
It is for the Rugby Football Union to accept that the need for outside help, from rugby men of achievement and intellect who have not been involved in a hopeless failure to preserve some classic values in a catchpenny rush to exploit a new age of "professionalism" and cheap celebrity, has now become utterly unavoidable.
English cricket, which had also become a sick man of its sport a few years ago, appointed Andy Flower – a former Zimbabwe Test player of outstanding achievement and vigorous principles which led him into conflict with Robert Mugabe – with brilliant results. England, wrecked by a lack of leadership on and off the field when Flower took office, are now the world's top Test team – and a noticeably disciplined and grown-up outfit.
You couldn't help thinking of the relationship of trust that exists between Flower and captain Andrew Strauss and their players at almost every point of the sickening chore of scouring the reports compiled by the Rugby Players Association, the RFU and Premiership Rugby.
This was especially so when you read the anonymous claim of one RPA member that those young players appalled by the lack of discipline – and active discouragement of a serious work ethic – of senior players were aghast when manager Martin Johnson, of all people, "lacked the bollocks" to take action in the wake of the night vice-captain Mike Tindall and other players descended into the booze-filled abyss of Dwarfgate.
Flower and Strauss brusquely dismissed protests, led by the team's celebrity Kevin Pietersen, when it was learned that there would be no Wag presence on the winning Ashes tour last year – not least in the vital six-week period when the team ethos, and discipline, had to be clearly established.
Only the reputation of England scrum coach Graham Rowntree is left unblemished by the mountain of recriminations contained in the reports, and especially in the one presented by the RPA.
Johnson's decision to resign came on the day the reports were submitted. He had, so sadly when you think of what he meant to English and Lions rugby in his great years as an outstanding player, little option but to jump. The RFU would surely have felt obliged to push him after reading that the very basis of his appointment, his aura as a great competitor and natural leader, was squandered by his regularly deferring to an outside "leadership" consultant.
Johhson's coaching squad, apart from Rowntree, who is said to have, uniquely, taken the trouble to visit players in their club environments, are not so much criticised as professionally dismantled. The players say that the coaches talked in mumbo jumbo, produced a regime that led to a sharp deterioration in the fitness players brought to the squad and generally created not the possibility of hope and progress but the certainty of despair.
It is also true, however, that some of the submissions of the RPA demand a fresh set of questions.
If the example of Tindall was so shockingly irresponsible, why was the RPA's reflex action to his £25,000 fine and dismissal from the elite list of players an instant appeal and the statement that his punishment was "extraordinary?"
If some of the players were so disgusted by the behaviour of senior players, who apparently scorned the more eager of the youngsters as "keenos", why did they not have the guts to make a stand? Why did they bleat about persecution by the media, why did an experienced – and respected – player like Mark Cueto make the fatuous claim that it was a sad world when "rugby players can't go out for a few beers and a bit of banter".
At best this was disingenuous. At worst it was rank and disgraceful deceit as it fuelled the claims of so many blissfully ignorant England supporters that their heroes were victims of conspiracy and cynical sensationalism. The heroes, we know now, were locked in mutual disgust. The coaches were held in ever growing contempt. The iconic manager was despised for his weakness in the face of irresponsibility by those players in whom he had placed his trust.
It is against this background of breakdown that a new man must build the kind of commitment and professional pride that Warren Gatland has been able to develop in a brilliant, and uplifting, young Welsh team.
In a week when the worst suspicions about England have been confirmed, there might be a point of light in the suspicion that South African Nick Mallett may be re-considering his first rejection of RFU overtures. Mallett, no more than anyone else, might not bring instant remedies. But he is his own, intelligent man – and one with plenty of distance from the problems which have brought English rugby so low. The harshest reality is that such qualities have become utterly crucial to the future of the team that not only lost its ability to compete at the highest level but also a way to think and behave with a degree of decent responsibility.
English rugby is desperate not so much for a weighty job application – but some early response to an SOS.Reuse content