Can limited England reach the 'promised land'?
The New Zealand media have a lot of fun with what they perceive as the pompous attitude of English rugby journalists and fans: "You simple southern hemisphere folk fail to understand the intricacies of the game," goes the line. "All that fancy running and handling - 'proper' rugby is about grunt and grind, dour attrition and sticking it up your jumper."
While such a perception is overly simplistic, the neutrals who witnessed England v Scotland at Eden Park could be forgiven for wondering how 140 years of rivalry, 128 previous games - all that so-called sporting warfare - had failed to trigger an arms race and drag the northern hemisphere game out of the trenches.
The match was not without its tension and drama, that's for certain. One minute Scotland were through, then it was England. Then Scotland again. And finally England. Indeed, there will be a journalist in the northern hemisphere, somewhere, who will claim it was a game that could have been "scripted by Le Carré". Down south, they will take a dimmer view.
Before the game, England manager Martin Johnson said "it's going to be tense, it's going to be nervy, there's going to be anxiety". Chalk that comment up to experience - or call it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Either way, for the first 40 minutes, England's sole attacking ploy appeared to be Jonny Wilkinson's up-and-under. So anxious, England forgot about their other backs.
Outside Wilkinson, England's two most destructive runners, Manu Tuilagi and Chris Ashton, were left kicking their heels. Ashton, remarkably, did not touch the ball until the 59th minute. To be fair to Wilkinson, he was hardly helped by half-back partner Ben Youngs, who was indecisive under pressure and whose delivery was poor.
Wilkinson has landed fewer than 50% of his goal kicks at the 2011 World Cup. Pic: Getty
Monitoring social media sites during the game was a joy: "Wilkinson's past it... Wilko's God!... Wilkinson's past it... Wilko's God!" The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. The man has a big old set on him still, as he proved by knocking over a couple of crucial second-half kicks. But a wayward first-half display left you wondering where he had mislaid his Mojo: check the little people of Queenstown, check Dave Alred's kit-bag, check Mike Tindall's pockets from 'that night' in Altitude - it has to be somewhere.
The uncomfortable truth for Wilkinson is that, if his kicking game is off, then Toby Flood looks the better attacking choice. People sometimes accuse me of being a sporting romantic, an aesthete for aesthetics' sake, but if you have destructive three-quarters, then you might as well use them. It is not just 'chucking the ball about', it is the rational option.
Of course, when your set-piece is getting mangled, playing with any kind of fluency becomes a challenge. "[The first half] was a bit like the Argentina game," said Johnson. "Lots of free-kicks and penalties, our set-piece creaked, we couldn't get a foothold. They had a bit more urgency." He could have added "more intensity", "more nous". Dare I say it, "more passion".
There were times before the break when England looked and played like strangers. Static receivers, poor lines of running, missed tackles - and worst of all, no-one delivering a good old-fashioned rollocking. It suggested this was a side badly lacking in leaders, a side full of players who do not know who to turn to when the opposition gets amongst them and starts ripping up their plans.
The second half was better. But not by that much. "You play these games in isolation," added Johnson. "The game is not always going to be beautiful - but we finished it off."
That they did. But will the template that finished off Argentina and Scotland finish off better sides? Is it the correct template to win a World Cup? And surely winning the World Cup should be the ambition of any England side. Big resources and big money comes with big expectations.
"There is more than one way to reach the promised land," wrote a British journalist last week, referring to this unhealthy southern hemisphere addiction to creativity and guile. In six World Cups so far, the promised land has been reached by one northern hemisphere side, England in 2003. That is an awful lot of teams that have taken the wrong direction.
The good news? England are in the quarter-finals - and France, who they play in the last eight, were absolutely appalling in losing to Tonga. Marc Lievremont's side appear to have all the team spirit and camaraderie of a rock band entering the final stages of a 200-date tour. If we are talking Spinal Tap, then this was France's Stonehenge moment.
"France are just like us playing at school," texted a friend at the end of match. "Some days they're just not up for it - too cold, opposition too big." Only a joke, but he has a point.
Beat the flaky French next Saturday in Auckland, as they have every chance of doing, and England are in the semi-finals. A victory for the English style of play? Well, that depends on your definition of 'promised land'.