If nothing in this World Cup of rugby is likely to match the depression caused by the disappearance through injury of the magnificent Daniel Carter, fresh evidence of the unprofessional conduct of some of the England players is, by a substantial margin, the nearest rival.
While the placing of James Haskell, Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton on a final warning after their gross and puerile humiliation of a young chambermaid is arguably a reasonably balanced response, the same surely cannot be said of the continued presence within the squad of vice-captain Mike Tindall.
There was some outrage when it was argued – here and in a few other places – that manager Martin Johnson, having announced that he was giving his players a free rein in the matter of drinking and the presence of Wags, had a strong reason to enforce his claim that if his trust was betrayed he would make some decisions of his own.
In the case of vice-captain Tindall, pictured drunk and in the embrace of a blonde woman in a Queenstown bar at 2am in the first days of the tournament, there was plainly a compelling case to send him home.
Now such an argument is fuelled by the admission that he lied to Johnson when he said he returned directly to the team hotel after his time in the Altitude bar which was featuring a night of dwarf-throwing. In fact he went to another bar, in the company of the woman said to be a "friend" of Tindall and his wife Zara Phillips, where he was caught again on CCTV.
Yesterday Johnson, who before leaving for New Zealand said that he was dealing with adults/blokes, denied that Tindall had lied to him. He had merely been "inaccurate in his recollection of events of the night" rather than attempting an "orchestrated cover-up".
It is apparently certainly true that the orchestration of a cover-up for at least some time was a secondary challenge to that of putting one foot in front of the other, witnesses having reported that at one point Tindall collided with a wall.
A spokesperson for the player has now revealed that he has apologised to the team management for giving a "misleading account" of his actions in Queenstown.
Yesterday Johnson resurrected yet again his mantra that if "mistakes" have been made there is a simple imperative to move on into the knockout phase in which England will play France, who are beset by their own different but no less pressing problems after a shocking defeat by Tonga, in the quarter-finals next weekend.
However, England's impressive reputation for emerging strongly after poor performances in the early stages of a World Cup, has never been quite so laden with question marks.
At one point on Saturday, Scotland, with their hugely inferior player population, led England by nine points – a margin which if maintained would have seen England flying home today.
A late try by Chris Ashton wiped away the possibility of such embarrassment but it hardly erased a growing list of self-inflicted wounds, some of them ludicrous in an allegedly world-class squad.
Dwarfgate has now been compounded by the escalating level of Tindall's original offence. The immature behaviour of Haskell, Hartley and Ashton is another blow to Johnson's contention that there was little or any need for a regime of tough discipline.
The suspension of two senior members of the coaching squad for illegally supplying Jonny Wilkinson with balls for conversion attempts which were not in use when tries were scored has caused much head-shaking in rival camps, as has the image of a team left pretty much to its own errant devices. These include a calamitous penalty count and the possibility that Delon Armitage's citing for a high tackle on Scotland's Chris Paterson will see him become the second England player to draw a suspension, Courtney Lawes having been banned for putting a knee into the Argentine hooker in the first game.
It is perhaps little wonder that old World Cup heroes like England's Lawrence Dallaglio and Australia's Michael Lynagh both spoke of the lack of leadership within the squad. Dallaglio said that he felt sorry for Johnson as he constantly had to deal with problems that would not have arisen if proper levels of leadership had been displayed in the dressing room.
Lynagh recalled that in his time with Australia, who lead the World Cup winners' table with South Africa on two titles, there was always a committee of senior players whose job was to head off trouble at the pass. Lynagh said it was the gift of experience, an understanding of how quickly small issues can erupt into major problems under the pressure of a World Cup.
Such logic had never appeared more compelling as Johnson was forced to explain why three of his players had, apparently, lured a young, gap-year University student into a hotel room by taking her mobile phone from a trolley that she had pushed into a lift – and then made suggestions which she was soon recounting tearfully to the hotel manager.
One of the more frequent defences on behalf of such behaviour is that rugby boys have to be boys. The countering one, of course, is that this should not be so when they are supposed to be adult, highly professional competitors operating at the peak of a four-year cycle.
Certainly it was interesting yesterday that two of the youngest players in the highly impressive Welsh team, precociously mature fly-half Rhys Priestland and the spectacular three-quarter George North, made a point of the squad's immersion in the belief that for a few weeks the challenge of the World Cup had to be all-consuming.
Wales's Kiwi coach Warren Gatland has already made the point that his team had imposed their own strict limits on alcohol and were operating their own curfew.
Perhaps Johnson was hoping for such a response from his own players. That he has not been so lucky, at least not in the formative stages of the tournament, was evident enough from his care-worn expression yesterday when once again he was required to discuss behaviour which was explicitly attacked in a disciplinary report commissioned by the Rugby Football Union.
That was provoked, scarcely believably in all the circumstances, by the misbehaviour of England players on a tour of New Zealand shortly before Johnson took office. The union's chief disciplinary officer, Judge Jeff Blackett, while imposing fines and reprimands on two England players, said that late-night drinking and irresponsible behaviour in team hotels was no longer consistent with the behaviour expected of members of a professional team seeking to become the most successful in the world.
Who knows, England may once again pick up their crumpled bed and march to unanticipated heights. They did it in Australia in 2003 and in France four years ago. In the meantime, though, they have a few days to consider the changing mores of a game which over the last few weeks has produced superbly professional performance – and discipline – by teams like New Zealand, South Africa, Wales and Ireland.
If they have any wisdom at all, they will surely listen not to their more laddish instincts but to men like Dallaglio, who learned from his own mistakes, and Lynagh – men who came to know the value of grown-up leadership and a touch of commonsense.Reuse content