‘What? I’m not allowed to drink til I puke? Next thing I know you’ll be telling me I can’t light my own farts or lace Bruiser’s jockstrap with lashings of Deep Heat.’ In many ways, the debate surrounding the off-field antics of some of the England players is a clash of ideologies. One theory which purports that players need to be fully fit and focussed to perform to their optimal level – aka professionalism – and another which suggests players need to be relaxed and mildly hungover to bring the best out of them – aka rugby pre about 1995. In the face of pundits and former players using it as a chance to feel morally superior to the current team, Martin Johnson has defended his decision to let his players off the leash during the tournament, but when Hello magazine are covering the team almost as much as the sports sections of Fleet Street, something has clearly gone awry.
On the face of it, it’s a delightful draw for England. France have been almost incessantly rubbish so far in the World Cup, but that’s arguably more worrying than a team playing at their very best. Les Bleus could be coming into the game on the back of a hammering from the Connacht Under 9s, but they’ve still got the unpredictability about them which means you can’t relax. Plus, there’s always the chance that if the stars align correctly, everything goes to plan and the players don’t listen to Marc Lievremont, they’ll hit that level of free-flowing brilliance that’s virtually unplayable.
In the past, England would have countered the flamboyance of the French by strangling the game and capitalising on Gallic indiscipline, but as Jonny Wilkinson is kicking with the precision of a sawn-off shotgun, there’s no guarantee that they’ll get the points to edge away from Les Bleus. Perhaps most worrying for Martin Johnson was how his players made a Scotland back line that has struggled to score tries look like a rampant Highland charge straight from the DVD extras of Braveheart. One of the positives of the Johnson era to date was the fact he seemed to have developed England’s attacking threat, but already at this World Cup that’s something we’re seeing about as often as a Zara Phillips’ smile.
France have been playing poorly, but they’ve got the superior scoring potential. England are capable of slugging it out and doing enough to get through, much to the delight of the publicans of Auckland.