Rugby Union: Wilkinson rises above the whistle

England 24 Scotland 21 Tries: Rodber, Luger, Beal Tries: Tait 2, Townsend Conversions: Wilkinson 3 Conversions: Logan 3 Penalty: Wilkinson Half-time: 17-7 Attendance: 75,000
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The Independent Online
THEY CAME in their tens of thousands to watch Jonny Wilkinson make sweet midfield music on his full debut at the Five Nations festival, but the Twickenham cognoscenti soon found themselves listening to the premiere of an out-of-key whistle sonata by an Irish referee. David McHugh's masterpiece turned out to be a dissonant and thoroughly frustrating piece in God knows how many movements, all of them obstructive and accompanied by a chorus of muttered oaths and mumbled profanities from 15 Englishmen.

James Galway might have struggled to play as many notes in a single 80- minute period as his compatriot managed on Saturday and the fact that McHugh ultimately failed to sabotage a Calcutta Cup contest in which the high peaks of excitement just about prevailed over the troughs of confused cock-uppery was largely down to the wit of Gregor Townsend and his richly imaginative centres, who created any number of silk purses from the sow's ear of over-fussy officialdom.

There was no question of bias; in refusing even to countenance continuity, let alone encourage it, McHugh was bad news for both sides. But England, locked in their one-dimensional mindset, suffered far more than their Scottish opponents. Having based their entire tactical approach around aiming two or three of their biggest and most physical forwards at the Scottish midfield off second-phase possession, they were completely flummoxed by the speed of the whistle. The Scots, well versed in the dark arts of ball-killing, had no need to risk life and limb under eight sets of English studs. McHugh did their dirty work for them by stopping the game as soon as a body hit the deck.

Of course, England should have adapted, just as Townsend, John Leslie and Alan Tait adapted, but adaptability has rarely been a feature of the red rose army, who traditionally react with almost Papal sluggishness to changing circumstances. The lack of intuitive decision-making was most glaring at half-back: while Townsend thought on his feet, Mike Catt repeatedly ran headlong into the blue-shirted thicket and handed the Scots precious opportunities to reorganise their defence.

But the wider implications of McHugh's refereeing are too serious to sweep under the green carpet of Twickenham. England's three remaining championship matches will be controlled by southern hemisphere A-listers and everyone in the camp, from Clive Woodward and Lawrence Dallaglio to the boy Wilkinson, expects the approach to be more sympathetic, more enlightened, more user-friendly. The problem is crystal clear: fundamental differences of interpretation have left the international game a hostage to fortune and forced highly talented, painstakingly prepared professional teams to gear their tactics to the whims and fancies of a particular official rather than the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. If the refereeing is not standardised, this year's World Cup will be a hoot.

"Yes, I think the forthcoming matches will be handled very differently," agreed Dallaglio, the England captain, who may or may not have been aware that in recent Five Nations games controlled by southern hemisphere or French referees, his countrymen have scored an average 45 points, as opposed to 23 in games featuring a Celt with a whistle. "That should not be taken as a criticism of David McHugh, who stated quite clearly how he intended to go about things. But interpretations do differ and the southern hemisphere officials tend to free the ball up far more, which suits the way we're trying to play.

"We could have tucked the ball up our jumpers and perhaps won more comfortably, but we want to look at the wider picture and develop a game that will bring us long-term success on the world stage rather than the European one. There were some frustrations out there, obviously, but I want us to address ourselves to the errors we made, our lack of technical proficiency, rather than worry about the refereeing. We've set ourselves standards and on this occasion, those standards weren't met. I'm happy to have won, but that's as far as it goes."

Two converted tries to the good inside 20 minutes, England reached the end of the opening quarter thinking in terms of a nice little 40-pointer. The first was hairy-chested in the extreme, Tim Rodber driving twice for the line from an eighth-minute line-out and grounding both the ball and Gordon Bulloch, hardly one of life's midgets, from the second of his bicep- bulging bursts. Then it was Richard Hill's turn to blow the Scottish defence to smithereens. The Saracens flanker was by some distance the pick of the English pack and his thunderous stomp into the Scottish 22 resulted in a debut Five Nations try for the increasingly accomplished Dan Luger.

So what happened? Two things, chiefly: an outbreak of rank carelessness along the spine of the English team, for which an unusually untidy Matt Dawson and a ponderous Nick Beal were largely responsible, and a magnificent flowering of Scottish forward pride. Scott Murray, a surefire Lion in the making, was blossomer-in-chief up front, although Martin Leslie was not far behind in creating a one-man swarm around the loose ball. Both handled intelligently to create the first of Tait's tries 12 minutes before the break and when Townsend and Leslie sent their midfield colleague haring into a gap the width of Glencoe six minutes into the second half, the battle was well and truly joined.

Both sides claimed a third try in the final quarter, two highly comical affairs finished by Beal and Townsend respectively. Jim Telfer, the Scottish coach, must have blanched at the sight of Gary Armstrong and Glenn Metcalfe missing straightforward tackles on the Northampton full-back, while Woodward was utterly aghast at the way his side surrendered seven wholly avoidable points.

At least Woodward was able to take a degree of solace from the fact that when they most needed to, his side were able to locate their excavation equipment and dig deep. Wilkinson's iron defence was something to behold - more than once during a frantic finale, the teenager buried Tait with man-sized tackles - and in the last analysis, it was that muscular security that earned the overwhelming favourites a victory they scarcely deserved and were in no frame of mind to treasure. Wilko and in, you might say.

ENGLAND: N Beal (Northampton); D Rees (Sale), J Guscott (Bath), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), D Luger (Harlequins); M Catt (Bath), M Dawson (Northampton); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), D Garforth (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester), T Rodber (Northampton), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: D Grewcock (Saracens) for Johnson, 67; K Bracken (Saracens) for Dawson, 69.

SCOTLAND: G Metcalfe (Glasgow Caledonians); C Murray (Edinburgh Reivers), A Tait (Edinburgh Reivers), J Leslie (Glasgow Caledonians), K Logan (Wasps); G Townsend (Brive), G Armstrong (Newcastle, capt); T Smith (Glasgow Caledonians), G Bulloch (Glasgow Caledonians), P Burnell (London Scottish), S Murray (Bedford), S Grimes (Glasgow Caledonians), P Walton (Newcastle), E Peters (Bath), M Leslie (Edinburgh Reivers. Replacements: A Pountney (Northampton) for Walton, 53; D Hilton (Bath) for Burnell, 71.

Referee: D McHugh (Ireland).

FIVE NATIONS TABLE

P W D L F A Pts

Scotland 2 1 0 1 54 44 2

Ireland 2 1 0 1 38 33 2

England 1 1 0 0 24 21 2

France 1 1 0 0 10 9 2

Wales 2 0 0 2 43 62 0

RESULTS: 6 Feb: Ireland 9 France 10 (Lansdowne Road); Scotland 33 Wales 20 (Murrayfield). Saturday: England 24 Scotland 21 (Twickenham); Wales 23 Ireland 29 (Wembley).

REMAINING FIXTURES: 6 March: Ireland v England (Lansdowne Road); France v Wales (Stade de France). 20 March: England v France (Twickenham); Scotland v Ireland (Murrayfield).10 April: France v Scotland (Stade de France). 11 April: Wales v England (Wembley).

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