Robin Scott-Elliot: Who wants to be a hero? All of England, half of the time

View From The Sofa: Rugby World Cup 2011, ITV 1
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The Independent Online

England has become a nation of halves and half-nots. Between its footballers and rugby players they managed to win two halves over an extended sporting weekend, but it was the two they did not that left the lasting impression.

There are few better resourced, supported and funded sporting outfits than England's rugby team. In Olympic sports, every penny has to be justified and if medals aren't the end product, funding is cut. What have England got to show for what seems an eternity in New Zealand? Two battered minnows, two ponderous victories and, come the first meeting with an equal, they are tossed out of the tournament with all the dignity of a bar-room dwarf. It is the least successful expedition to the southern hemisphere since Captain Scott decided to go sledging at the South Pole.

"Who wants to be a hero?" bellowed Phil Vickery in vain at the men in white as time ticked away in Auckland. At one point the camera focused on Lewis Moody and Vickery, who has overcome his own plodding start in the tournament to become a quirkily enjoyable presence in the commentary box, almost begged the England captain to stir up his charges. "Oh goodness," Vickery said with admirable restraint a few moments later as the French pack shunted their English counterparts backwards.

ITV's pundits have landed in New Zealand en masse now the interesting part of the tournament has arrived, and they have been equipped with little green mats to stand on when pitchside as no rugby players like to get grass on their brogues. Now he's finally back home, Sean Fitzpatrick looks ever more the Auckland don, a Kiwi Brando, specialising in a shrug of withering disdain. Yesterday for his country's quarter-final he sported a black shirt that only served to ratchet up the menace factor.

The look of an absorbing weekend of early-morning rugby belonged to an unidentified member of France's coaching team, who sported an impeccable pencil moustache. It was a hirsute statement of cross-Channel intent. All England had to offer in return was Dan Cole's thicket.

France have become the ultimate sporting stereotype. Before kick-off the talk pitchside, with all carefully positioned on their mats, was about which France would turn up – it is the hoariest line in rugby punditry but remains pivotal and is probably best answered with a Gallic shrug, although when Fitzpatrick attempts one it serves only to raise fears of finding a horse's head in your bed, or a sheep's head as it is in New Zealand. Francois Pienaar offered the telling prediction; unless England started well and opened a lead in the first quarter they would lose. A few moments after kick-off Vickery offered a telling example of a clash of two rugby cultures, and perhaps why France are in the semi-finals and Ben Foden is tweeting apologies to England fans. England had the throw at a line-out almost on the French line, the French gambled and challenged for the ball, won it and cleared the danger. "Ooh, that's very risky," said Vickery, almost chastising them for having the gall to be so daring.

The second half reinforced Pienaar's point with every point England clawed back until a squad pursued by off-field problems and discord advanced into the last four at the expense of a squad pursued by off-field problems and discord. Or was it the other way round?

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