Time for England to heed the alarm bells

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The Independent Online

England have swallowed their punishment, and if they could learn to do the same with their pride they might emerge from the World Cup with their reputation enhanced rather than being attacked from most sides. The Red Rose brigade did not need the assistance of a 16th man against Samoa, particularly as they are already carrying excess baggage labelled hubris.

As the country ranked No 1 in the world, England are the team most people love to hate, but it would help if they weren't quite so forthcoming in providing the pom-pom gunners with ammunition. The perception - from their high-handed attempts at manipulating the schedule of the Six Nations' Championship, through Phil Larder's refusal to move out of the way of a marching band in Marseilles, to the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the affair of the 16th man in Melbourne - is that England are too big for their boots.

Clive Woodward was relieved when he emerged from the offices of Allen, Allen and Hemsley in Sydney, the scene of the three-and-a-half-hour inquiry, to declare: "It was a very fair hearing.''

It was not where he wanted to be. England's fine of £10,000 for misconduct, with the trainer Dave Reddin banned from the touchline for two matches, is a penalty that was as light as they could have hoped for.

The Rugby Football Union and Reddin pleaded guilty to ignoring match official Brett Bowden, who instructed the hapless Dan Luger (yelled at from all sides, the wing did not know whether he was coming or going) not to take the field while Mike Tindall was receiving treatment. For just 34 seconds England had 16 players on the pitch, and the fine was imposed because "there was a specific direction given to act contrary to the instructions of a match official''.

By taking the law into their own hands, England provided the Australian press with a field day. Toutai Kefu, the injured Wallaby No 8, delivered one of the more curious statements of the tournament when, in arguing for England to be docked the points from their victory over Samoa, he declared: "The English have always been arrogant. Go back in history, look at the English Army. Who goes to war dressed in red coats?''

It did not attract wholesale support, some observers accusing Kefu of racism. However, the accusation here that England no longer rule the waves but waive the rules is widespread. Not that it will bother Woodward, who once played and coached at the Sydney club Manly. "I think 99.9 per cent of Australians are fantastic people,'' Woodward said. "I have a lot of good friends who are Australians and they ring me and say sorry. It's not a reflection of how Australians think of the English. It's amusing. You feed off it and enjoy it.''

However, what will be of concern to the England coach is that his team have had two huge wake-up calls, from South Africa and Samoa, and have been slow to respond. The Springboks' back-row created mayhem in Perth, and the Samoans were sensational before losing 35-22.

England's redoubtable defence were guilty of a worrying number of missed tackles, their line was breached and even Jonny Wilkinson's goal-kicking went awry, although his cross-field kick that led to the try for Iain Balshaw was inch-perfect. The penalty try against Samoa was awarded with indecent haste, while the rolling-maul juggernaut that resulted in a try for Neil Back, who had seven English forwards in front of him, can only be countered illegally.

England have not looked as comfortable or as dangerous as their status demands, and have a lightweight game against Uruguay today before their scheduled meeting with Wales in the quarter-finals next week.

"We are making too many mistakes, and if that does not change we are not going to beat teams in the knock-out stages,'' Martin Johnson, the captain, said. "We are also getting penalised a lot at the breakdown for doing things we regularly do in the northern hemisphere.''

Woodward has no such reservations. "You guys should keep your powder dry. It's getting a little dramatic. We won the game four tries to one and we didn't have a lot of ball early on to work with. We got through it, we won and we're still winning. I'm sure that we are right there. I'm very confident about this group of players.''

In the face of Samoa's passionate approach, and with reference to the Luger episode, few people have been keeping their cool under enemy fire.

England might not want to play them again too soon, but if they offered Samoa a game, Twickenham would be full. John Boe, the Samoan coach, said: "If you want to upset the big boys you have got to believe in yourselves and you have got to attack. If we did not believe in our ability to win we would never have come. We came here to play. At the end of the day the better team won and we congratulate them. They are an outstanding side. Our tradition is to have a go and to never, ever back down to anybody.''

With Johnson joining other first-team members on the bench against Uruguay, Phil Vickery takes over the captaincy ahead of Lawrence Dallaglio. Dallaglio is one of Woodward's senior players who have been underperforming, which is a mystery given the meticulous preparation. ''I think Lawrence has had a couple of quiet games and I want him to look after himself this weekend and get back to playing his best,'' Woodward said. "I want him to play his own game and get a little more involved.''

Getting involved against Uruguay should not be a problem for Dallaglio, who seems to have been surprised at the quality of the opposition. "I think everyone needs a big game,'' Dallaglio said. "As a team clearly we've not hit our best form. The way we're playing now is certainly not where we need to be.''

England are desperately missing Richard Hill, who suffered a hamstring injury against Georgia. "He's not quite there and we didn't want to take any risks with him,'' Woodward said. "The medical staff are confident he'll be fit for the quarter-finals. At the moment he's running at about 90 per cent.''

The same could be said of England.