England Need To Prove a Point By Scoring Points Against Romania

By Huw Silk

Ever a sensible face amongst the hysteria whipped up by the media and an attention-seeking security guard, England coach Martin Johnson has refused to rise to the bait of those pronouncing a sense of panic within his side’s ranks.

England, of course, remain unbeaten in this year’s Rugby World Cup, after having seen off Pool B top seeds Argentina and lowly Georgia, but the manner of those wins has only encouraged the doom-mongers, who have this week been further encouraged by apparent late night shenanigans engaged in by Johnson’s men.

Captain Mike Tindall, recently married to the Queen’s granddaughter Zara Phillips, played a central role in the controversy (such as it was), apparently captured on CCTV footage leaked by the aforementioned guard in an amorous embrace with another woman. The team as a whole were also involved in a bizarre dwarf-throwing incident in the party town of Queenstown. Most ridiculously, Johnson was criticised for allowing his squad to bungee jump; less frenzied coverage pointed out the marked difference with the England football team at last year’s World Cup campaign in South Africa, who were cooped up, bored, in their hotel rooms, something that was widely accepted as contributing towards their early exit.

That Johnson has not imposed such strict rules on his group of players – who are adults, after all – should reflect well on his man-management skills. However, whilst the controversy surrounding the team’s visit to bars and clubs is overblown, the players should know not to take advantage of their freedom, something which has also put unnecessary additional pressure on Johnson himself.

Following a fortnight of relatively negative headlines – the stale brand of rugby evident in the defeats of Argentina and Georgia as well as the reporting of England’s off-the-field antics – the team which steps out at against Romania on Saturday morning will feel that they have a huge point to prove.

Certainly, in purely rugby terms, England have hardly impressed so far. Some have pointed out, fairly, that England need not (and indeed should not) peak at such an early stage in the tournament. Even so, the performances have been undisciplined, lacking conviction. A narrow 13-9 win over an Argentina that is little more than a shadow of the side that finished third in 2007 was followed by a 41-10 win over Georgia, but that scoreline hardly reflects the difficulty that England – who led by only seven points at the break – faced. In both matches, England had a player sent to the sin bin, and they can be thankful that Georgia’s Merab Kvirikashvili and Argentina’s Martin Rodriguez have missed a total of eleven penalty kicks over the course of the last 160 minutes of play.

As the cliché states, it is a mark of a good team that they can still win even when playing badly. Even so, England’s third match at Dunedin’s Otago Stadium tomorrow provides an excellent opportunity to go some way to making amends for the (perceived and actual) shortcomings displayed so far. Romania are probably the weakest side in the pool, and may fear what might happen to them if England succeed in their attempts to make a statement, manage to draw a line under what has happened so far and start their campaign afresh. A win on the scale of South Africa’s 87-0 destruction of Namibia on Thursday is not completely out of the question, though it would represent a stunning turnaround in English fortunes.

Indeed, it would be foolish to count on such a scoreline, not least considering the difficulty Scotland had against the Eastern Europeans in their meeting two weekends ago. Scotland did secure a bonus-point win in Invercargill, but the 34-24 result indicates the discomfort that the Romanians – who only fell behind in the last five minutes of the match after a Simon Danielli double – caused for Scotland.

As such, England have named a side arguably stronger than the one that toiled so much against Georgia. Captain Tindall is recalled, and as he takes his place in midfield he will know that he will be the centre of attention. He will also, of course, also be aware of the most effective way to answer his critics. Jonny Wilkinson replaces Toby Flood, and England’s 2003 World Cup-winner will have no better opportunity to banish the demons of his previous start against Argentina, when he missed an unprecedented five kicks at goal out of eight. There are five further changes to the side that faced Georgia, as Mark Cueto, Alex Corbisiero, Steve Thompson, Louis Deacon and Tom Croft all start. Courtney Lawes, meanwhile, serves the second of his two-game suspension.

The Romanian players are no mugs, though, and they will put up a tough physical battle, particularly upfront. England have been penalised to such an extent that Romania’s gameplan will surely revolve around a tactic to draw infringements at the breakdown. The importance of eradicating ill-discipline will not be revealed so clearly against a side of Romania’s calibre, but England must nonetheless eliminate that side of their game before they encounter a team with the capability of taking advantage of those errors. Scotland, for example, would fancy their chances of overcoming an England side which fails to keep control in the manner that it has done so far.

If England are serious about regaining the Webb Ellis trophy, they must demonstrate to their rivals on Saturday that they have – finally – turned up to the party. How effectively Romania manage to play the spoiler role will decide the scale of England’s win.

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