ONE PLAYER suspended, one flying home injured, one with his name splashed across every celebrity-news website in the world ... when the England manager Martin Johnson brought his squad to Queenstown for a short spell of fun-filled relaxation, he could not have expected that life would quickly become such an unutterable pain in the rear end. Neither could he have imagined that in a town renowned throughout the southern hemisphere as the home of "extreme sports", his charges would spend their time associating with anything quite so extreme - or quite so tacky - as "dwarf throwing". Or maybe it was "dwarf racing". Either way, it makes you wonder.
The last time England were in New Zealand for longer than a few days - in 2008, when they played and lost a two-Test series against the All Blacks - they spent the second half of their trip refusing to help Auckland police with their inquiries after allegations that four players had been involved in serious sexual misconduct. No formal complaint was ever made, no charges ever laid. But to say the tourists left the country in bad odour would be an understatement of some proportions.
The Rugby Football Union found itself on the back foot again when it was forced to react to reports that several players, including the temporary captain Mike Tindall, had celebrated their weekend victory over Argentina with a degree of boisterousness more in keeping with amateur club players on an Easter tour than with highly-paid professionals in pursuit of the grandest prize in the sport. Some were pictured at a bar with the aforementioned dwarves, whose presence had been advertised on a flyer listing "Midget Weekender" and "Leprechaun Bar Wars" among its principal attractions. Tindall, who recently took up residence in royal circles by marrying Zara Phillips, was alleged to have been at the forefront of the extra-curricular activity.
The governing body's response was an interesting one - not so much for what it said as for what it failed to say. "Mike and several of the players were enjoying an evening out after he had led the team to a hard-earned victory over Argentina," read the official statement. "Like all the lads he plays for England with a massive amount of passion and he was relaxing after a tough match." There was no attempt to argue with any of the detail contained in the original report, or to suggest that nothing untoward occurred. The final sentence - "There will be no further comment" - was a triumph of hope over expectation.
Tindall and his playmates were in the centre of Queenstown early on Sunday evening, watching the South Africa-Wales game in a crowded pub before heading for pastures new. Some made a later night of it than others, but there was no suggestion at the time that any had abused the privilege afforded them by Johnson, who before departure from England flatly refused to impose an alcohol ban for the duration of the tournament.
"We're dealing with blokes, with adults," he said, explaining his reluctance to be "petty" about such matters. "It was like that when I started playing rugby at a senior level and it's no different just because the game is now professional. It's still down to players to make sensible decisions. I trust them to do that. If it turns out that I can't trust them, there'll be a simple decision for me to make."
It remains to be seen whether Johnson feels a decision coming on. This much is certain, though: the All Black nation, never well disposed to England - especially an England team who travel with their own barrister - will revel in this incident, and then revel some more. Neither the manager nor his players have heard the last of it.
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