48 hours: Woeful northerners haven't got a clue

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It has taken all of one weekend for the inevitable truth of the Rugby World Cup to emerge, that the hosts - in the wider European sense - face a crushing embarrassment in their backyard.

England will surely relinquish the Webb Ellis Cup - a trophy carried to their shores on the blood and sweat of men like Martin Johnson - with a retreat of Dunkirk proportions although without any glory.

The English media is reluctantly getting the dinghies out of the sheds already and it is now only a question of when their cumbersome troops are hauled off the beaches.

The French players may even get to return to their actual homes before the playoffs, although they may find it preferable initially to forsake the attraction of croissants in le salon for the charms of bacon butties abroad.

European rugby is at a low ebb. It lacks the athletes to compete against the Southern Hemisphere sides, and their leading teams have been sucked into complex build-ups instead of moulding tough stable units a-la England in 2003.

England created a thoroughbred team from a load of donkeys for the tournament in Australia although they are making an ass of themselves this time.

France, the country, looks beautiful at this time of year, but the World Cup is not a pretty sight. God knows what will happen when the All Blacks attack Portugal.

It took only 30 minutes of the opening match between a magnificently determined, well organised but limited Argentina and a deeply confused French side to realise that this tournament is now down to three teams - New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

France were the only European side with a chance of holding out the southern raiding party but they were shown to be as erratic as their maker, the bizarre Bernard Laporte.

There is a real chance that France will not even make the playoffs, as the myths about French rugby were cruelly exposed in the Stade de France, scene of their 1998 World Cup soccer triumph.

French rugby is a place where inconsistencies are often re-interpreted as a magic capable of rising out of their soul. Its status is often exaggerated because their major opponents are in the Six Nations, a competition where the glories of magnificent stadiums and the past are manipulated to overshadow the truth on the pitch.

How on earth could Laporte have stationed David Skrela - a first five-eighth so ponderous he makes Butch James look like Mark Ella - in charge of this monumental game.

Yes, Laporte might be justified in seeking structure for the French team. But when that structure is a tower block and you cloak it in the No 10 jersey, you have to wonder.

The error of Laporte's ways were immediately evident when the darling-turned-villain of France's last World Cup campaign, Frederic Michalak, came on and played remarkably like a first five-eighth.

Argentina used an aggressive and short line of defence and there were great opportunities for France on the flanks, but Skrela approached his task with the finesse of a man tying his shoe laces with hands buried in boxing gloves

If the South African James is the freight train of first five-eighths, then Skrela is the position's ocean liner. The word Titanic was written all over this French performance and whereas some have interpreted the loss to stage fright, turning up on opening night with a stage hand playing the lead is just asking for trouble.

Italy were incompetent against the All Blacks, despite being aided by offside leniency. As a World Cup form guide, remember that Italy beat Scotland and Wales in the 2007 Six Nations.

As for England, if this was cricket they would be dancing for rain and praying for a draw. There is no such place to hide in the rugby war and their victory over the United States was riddled with friendly fire.

A triumphal spirit rightly gripped England after their 2003 victory but keen judges should have known that Johnson's magnificent bunch was a one-off group of battled hardened heroes whose camaraderie compensated for glaring deficiencies.

English rugby is even more of a Titanic than a Skrela-run France. It has spent four years steaming towards the jagged ice with the band playing loudly, but the beat is now provided by popping rivets that herald a thunderous descent.

The 2003 victory has been an England undoing, holding them to a belief that leaden-footed forwards and backs who appear even slower could keep them at the top of the world game.

England may be the first reigning sports world champions to find humiliation in an opening victory at the next tournament.

Their woeful form is hardly a surprise considering they sidestepped common sense to pick a rugby league warhorse in Andy Farrell - whose Wigan league side were playing him at prop - as an inside back in the squad.

Even in the late stages of their planning, England coach Brian Ashton might have tried a player like Josh Lewsey in the No 12 jersey to inject spark as an alternative to Mike Catt babysitting the first five-eighths. Still, that would only have involved moving deck chairs with water already on the decks.

The raucous and enthusiastic crowds and their musical instruments, the gorgeous weather of brilliant blue skies, and brave, beefy Argentina - these were the stars of the World Cup opening. The English referee Tony Spreadbury also starred, being inconspicuous to the point of genius in the France-Argentina match.

What followed at Marseille was a concern though, because Italy were allowed to trample all over the offside rules by the young English referee Wayne Barnes. Rugby needs to install touch judges as offside policemen, and quick.

The shock of the match was that the All Black scrum struggled, but a bit of hard work should restore it to full health. It was also a tick, possibly, for Anton Oliver as a starter ahead of Keven Mealamu.

The All Blacks should also be concerned about Luke McAlister, whose array of second five-eighths party tricks don't belong in test rugby. The little Cantabrian Aaron Mauger showed in his late-game cameo that a clever brain trumps McAlister's flashy hands and feet.

What England would give for either of these men, although the world champs would probably banish their talents to the wing.

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