Tindall cast as fall guy in England's latest PR stunt
After a litany of cock-ups at the World Cup, the centre is the easy target for the RFU, writes Paul Hayward
Players come home from World Cups thinking about what they can tell the grandchildren. Mike Tindall's problem is what to say to the grandmother-in-law.
Zara Phillips' husband left England a royal but has returned from New Zealand a rogue after the RFU rendered him a pariah with a swingeing £25,000 fine for a good night out turned bad.
Royal connections normally work like a spell on Twickenham types. But this one brought Tindall no protection at all. In their angst, and exhausted from their own infighting, the RFU made a scapegoat of England's vice-captain, distilling all the team's misdemeanours into one brutal sentence that says more about the authors than Tindall, who was undeserving of sympathy until this ridiculous punishment came along.
Here we see a nasty case of revenge against a player who is no longer any use to England. Tindall's international career was plainly over in New Zealand. Many felt it was finished before he ventured into the land of dwarf-throwing and head-kissing, but that's another story. A midfield banger who seldom crosses the gainline these days, Tindall could be pitchforked off the England scene by the RFU and humiliated at the same time to frighten the others.
With that whopping fine and his expulsion from the England elite player squad, Tindall, 33, has been kicked to a moral pulp by suburbia's feuding barons. Why? Because the whole RFU/England mechanism could not control its players in New Zealand and so has decided to control them now, after the event.
The easiest target was a World Cup winner (2003) who had taken countless hits for his country before his professionalism deserted him on an evening out that turned from a few beers into the kind of session Oliver Reed would have enjoyed. Technically, he was in severe breach of the player code of conduct and was smacked extra hard for misleading Martin Johnson about the chronology of his trip to Queenstown's Altitude bar and turning a disciplinary skirmish into a scandal.
"You have got to relieve the pressure and let off steam at the right time. It was a good idea," said Johnson, the team manager, before he realised the scale of the drinking, and Tindall's economy with the truth about where he had been, and with whom.
By then, discipline in the England camp was disintegrating, with Courtney Lawes banned for kneeing Argentina's Mario Ledesma, illegal gumshields popping up and two England coaches inviting punishment for switching the ball kicked by Jonny Wilkinson against Romania.
Meanwhile, Johnson was reprimanding James Haskell, Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton for upsetting a female hotel worker. Ashton and Haskell were last week fined £5,000 (suspended for a year) although Rob Andrew's disciplinary team concluded: "We do not believe the players had any intention to sexually harass or intimidate Ms [Annabel] Newton." In which case, what are the fines for?
"These episodes and the subsequent disciplinary action should stand as a strong reminder that the highest standards of personal conduct are expected from any England player on and off the field," said Andrew, the Teflon man in a Twickenham set-up that still cannot decide whether to leave Johnson in the most senior role and instead invites him to reapply for his own job.
Even as Manu Tuilagi jumped off the ferry (result -- £3,000 fine) media space was being cleared for the wash of recriminations, and this England camp has not disappointed. With a book to sell (nothing wrong with that), Lewis Moody, the captain, announces: "In hindsight I think we would have banned drinking. It would have been the simplest thing to do." Thanks for that, skipper, the surviving players will grumble if they now board a dry ship.
'Mad Dog' Moody is the author of the most telling paragraph an England World Cup player is likely to write: "I had been growing concerned about the attitude in the camp, which had become apparent pretty much from the moment we arrived in Auckland. We were on the other side of the world, a lot of the guys were young, well-known, wealthy and believed they were invincible. I remember thinking that some were not quite in the right mindset."
So concerned was Moody that he abandoned his captain's Dick of the Day award, in the interests of seriousness.
We read, too, in riveting detail, of Wilkinson screaming under water and biting his own hand to fend off injury -- and obsession-induced depression.
Rugby tours are not trips to Lourdes, but this one has thrown up an extraordinary narrative of mismanagement, bureaucratic chaos, indiscipline, arrogance and now spite in sending a player of 75 caps into international retirement with a stigma over his whole career. No wonder Tindall will fight the sentence.
Sunday Indo Sport