There were some heavy hearts that left Melbourne for the next stage of the tournament in Dunedin, but also plenty of optimism that England can still make the final.
Dunedin in New Zealand’s south island is so difficult to get to that England went to the extra expense of chartering a plane to fly there direct. It was felt the extra cost would be worth it for the players’ recovery – three hours direct by charter as opposed to the journeys they would have had to take if not.
The journos on the trip can vouch for that theory. Between our small party of six, we had three different routes and none of them was easy. I was in the group that flew to Christchurch and then on to Dunedin, although a card game at Christchurch airport very nearly made us miss boarding for Dunedin. The airport departure times didn’t help however. Another destination entirely was posted for our flight and we were the only ones who didn’t know that this is quite common in that airport.
Another journo went via Wellington, while one had intended to go via Sydney and on to Queenstown but missed his connecting boarding time by five minutes and had to reroute to Auckland (with an extra night in Auckland before he could fly on to Dunedin).
We all arrived in various states of bedraggled tiredness and went straight to another get-together with Steve McNamara at their team hotel. Everything still going swimmingly at this stage between us all. That wasn’t to last.
The England players were buzzing about the amazingly drunken sights they’d seen that afternoon at a race meeting. They themselves were all sober but reckoned that some of the Kiwi punters at the meet were far drunker than any had ever witnessed before.
Cue jokey pieces by the tabloid writers in our party. And that’s when the bonhomie broke down temporarily over one of the headlines written. Headlines do tend to land writers in trouble at times (and no, we don’t write them even though everyone thinks we do). A “healthy” discussion ensued but it highlighted, and always will, that teams/clubs etc look at news and stories from an entirely different perspective to the media.
Wednesday saw England do an open training session, with local school kids invited to watch and then meet the players afterwards. Sam Tomkins was definitely the most popular, with one bloke even asking him to autograph a 20 dollar note. They must be flush these Kiwis.
Thursday and it’s a trip to the steepest street in the world. It’s official, it’s in the Guinness Book of Records and even has it’s own gift shop at the bottom. The quarter of a mile long street, with a gradient of one in two at its steepest and one in three at its gentlest, certainly gets the lungs working as you walk up it. Paul Wellens and Paul Deacon from England’s back room staff both ran up it – not surprisingly there were no attempts to do the same from the journos.
Dunedin did, in all honesty, seem a bit of a disappointment when we arrived in the cold and rain. But it’s grown on all of us in recent days, helped massively by the absolutely stunning local scenery. One particularly memorable drive along the Otago peninsula has to be recommended to anyone thinking of going there.
And so to match day and that usual mix of dread and giddy anticipation of what England might produce. The match was being played in an indoor stadium which looked more like a B&Q warehouse from the outside but was actually pretty impressive inside.
By now, of course, we all know the heartache that followed. If we left last week’s Aussie game with heavy hearts, this was even worse.
England have clearly played far better in this tournament than they have for years, with some pretty entertaining rugby along the way.
But defensive lapses too often bit the team on the bum and once again it was a case of so near yet so far for England. When will that ever change?
England’s exit from the tournament wasn’t confirmed of course until Australia plunged their usual dagger into our hopes by beating Samoa on Sunday.
For the England squad it’s flights home. But not before Josh Hodgson dragged their reputation down with drunken antics at a student house party.
The squad was given permission to go out after the New Zealand defeat but Hodgson clearly left common sense in the hotel.
In the days of smart phones, YouTube and social media, did Hodgson really believe he could get away with smashing his way through a door at the house?