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September 2011

Birds, booze and dwarves
21st September 2011

What now for England? Last week they took a fall, literally and metaphorically. While some of the team were bungee-jumping off bridges, others were tumbling over dwarves on an alcohol-fuelled bonding session in a back-packers’ bar. As the judgment of the individuals involved was inevitably called into question, the reputation of the whole squad - as well as that of manager Martin Johnson, who before the tournament started had gone out of his way to stress how much he trusted his players to make the right off-field judgements - plumbed the depths. And yet, as the media feeding frenzy subsided, England ran in six tries against Georgia and earned themselves a bonus-point in a display that was a huge improvement on the previous week’s witless win over Argentina.

Admittedly, it wasn’t great. England gave far too many penalties away and for the second match running earned themselves a yellow card for repeatedly getting on the wrong side of the referee. They still played as if they’d left their brains in the changing-rooms, committed far too many unforced errors and were still second-best in the all-important tackle area. For the second week in a row they were fortunate also that the opposition goalkicker had lost his radar. Even if Merab Kvirikashvili had landed all his kicks, Georgia would still have lost. If he’d landed half of them England would have been made to sweat even more than they did when leading 17-10 at half-time. As it was, England were left to feel grateful to the tournament organizers who had decreed that this was Georgia’s second big match in four days. The Lelos, who had run Scotland close at the weekend, had nothing left in the tank when the England machine finally spluttered into life in the second half.

And , admittedly, it won’t have consigned any of the leading rugby nations to sleepless nights. While New Zealand were going through the gears to crush Japan, South Africa were visibly growing in confidence the longer the game against Fiji went on. It is true that Tri-Nations champions Australia were mugged in Auckland by Ireland, but the Wallabies are still almost certain to reach the quarter-finals as are Wales - who crossed an important psychological barrier to defeat Samoa - and Argentina, who warmed up for next week’s fixture with Scotland by thumping Romania.

All of the above - even including Australia - showed that, like England, they had learned some lessons from the first round. None of them , however, played as poorly as Martin Johnson’s men , or were quite as lucky. Through no efforts of their own, England have had their path to a third consecutive World Cup Final opened up to them. Ireland’s victory - as deserved as it was unexpected - has to all intents and purposes removed the Wallabies from England’s half of the draw. England are now almost certain to face exclusively European opposition from now until the final on October 23rd. A quarter-final with France is now a near-certainty with a semi-final against the winner of a likely last-eight showdown between Ireland and Wales. Australia’s defeat by Ireland has lined them up for a quarter-final against South Africa with the All Blacks lying in wait for the winner. England have beaten all three of their likely knockout opponents in 2011 and whoever they play will hold few fears.

But only if England continue to improve. The opening day win over Argentina was so dire that against Georgia the only way was up. That victory, apparently, still failed to deter Martin Johnson from delivering a post-match tongue-lashing, nor did it prevent number eight James Haskell from demanding that the players start naming and shaming each other. While both men could probably argue that the tabloids have already done that, neither will dare entertain the thought that the events of the last week have been good for the team, or that the question of repeating them should be anything but begged.

But if it takes a trip to Queenstown to get England to play with anything like a bit of imagination or flair against a team as limited as Georgia, what will they have to do when the minnows go home and the tournament starts to get really interesting? If they need a combination of bungees, bars, booze, birds and bonding to get from dire to merely dismal, what will they have to do to get from dismal to anything like decent?