Dysfunctional England in need of expression
A win is a win. You will hear this phrase uttered in clubhouses across England in the days that follow their brain-freezing victory over Argentina in Dunedin. Because 'a win is a win' is not just a phrase, it is a pernicious culture.
A culture of just doing enough, of stultifying functionality. Functionality is good, of course, but only when married to bells and whistles. And the only whistles at the Otago Stadium on Saturday belonged to the all-singing, all-dancing Argentine fans. Oh, and referee Bryce Lawrence, who almost wore his out.
In truth, the performance of Martin Johnson's side was not even functional. But it is this striving to be functional - a culture that permeates English rugby to its roots - that leads to sides which are guileless, inflexible and which lack verve and brio - because functionality is an arch enemy of passion and expression.
England well and truly cemented their reputation as the party-poopers of world rugby with a performance of jaw-dropping, head-shaking mediocrity and Argentina will count themselves desperately unlucky that they ran out narrow losers.
Were it not for the profligacy of Argentina's kicking duo, Felipe Contepomi and Martin Rodriguez, and injuries to key players, England's hordes of travelling fans would now be contemplating a quarter-final clash with the All Blacks. Or, given Romania's stirring display against Scotland, much, much worse. For now, they are left to wonder how much more mediocrity is to come. Or perhaps they are sated: a win, after all, is a win.
England struggled to make any headway against a passionate Pumas side. Picture: Getty Images
England knew full well Argentina's pack would come at them hard but the way in which they were blitzed at the breakdown, especially in the first half, must have made Johnson wince.
With the imperious Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe urging on his beasts of burden from the back of the scrum and Mario Ledesma and Co doing his bidding, for England's forwards it must at times have felt like trying to herd flying shrapnel.
Only James Haskell of England's back row emerged with any credit and as a unit they were made to look upright and cumbersome, unable to clean men out at the breakdown and consequently unable to generate quick enough ball in order for their backs to work an opening. The nose-to-the-ground, scavenging number seven appears to be out of fashion in England, although on the evidence of Saturday night, I have no idea why.
When England's backs did get their hands on the ball, it was shovelled right and then left, and then right and then left again, but the Argentine defence was up to the battering. In contrast, Exeter wing Gonzalo Camacho resembled mercury slip-sliding across glass.
Afterwards, England captain Mike Tindall admitted his side "had not been squeaky clean enough". In actual fact, they were downright filthy - incontinent with infringements. The best players live life on the edge, push the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable - but that is a skill in itself, and one too many of England's forwards have yet to master.
Enough of the pessimism. We should, of course, bear in mind that England were battered 36-0 by South Africa in their second game in the last World Cup in France, although, with Mike Catt and Andy Farrell sharing fly-half duties because of injuries that depressing day in Paris, there were mitigating circumstances.
Still, in 2007, England were able to regroup and discover a pattern of play that worked for them. At the moment, too many England players look like they are not entirely sure what the game-plan is, if indeed there is one, or that they are terrified of not delivering on it.
If Johnson can loosen his players up, allow them to express themselves, they might just discover that prettier patterns of play and less functionality lead to more positive results. But Johnson does not have long to work the magic, and there is very little evidence to suggest he is inclined to change tack in the middle of a World Cup.
"That's what World Cups are about," said Johnson after the game, "you find a way to win." Perhaps if England harboured more ambition and played with more freedom of expression they would not have to go looking for the wins, the wins would come looking for them.
PS. As bonkers sporting arenas go, the Otago Stadium has to be up there. The first fully-enclosed grass stadium and made largely of glass and clear plastic, it looks like a cross between Palm House at Kew Gardens and a giant garden centre - and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But, best of all, it makes one hell of a racket.