Rugby Union: Wilkinson thrives on his crash course

Andrew Longmore watches the new boy point to a brighter tomorrow
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The Independent Online
IN A near-empty Twickenham, an hour before kick-off, a lone figure in a tracksuit top and white shorts calmly slotted home penalty after penalty. Nothing too fancy, just a moment to find some semblance of rhythm, to calm himself before his first Five Nations start. There will be better afternoons for Jonny Wilkinson, much better ones for England, who continued to play like millionaires when down to their loose change. But an unblemished record of kicks spoke volumes for his temperament after a less than auspicious debut on England's farcical tour to Australia last summer.

Then, Wilkinson was pitched into the deep end of Test rugby, an innocent abroad. A wayward early penalty in Brisbane betrayed understandable jitters in a land not noted for forgiveness. At the end of a wretched afternoon, England had conceded 76 points and Wilkinson's prodigious reputation lay trampled in the Brisbane dust. Clive Woodward, the England coach, had overmatched one of his most precious talents - and would reluctantly admit as much - but he knew his man better than we did. We said that such a traumatic experience could finish a veteran, let alone an 18-year-old, the youngest England debutant since 1927. So much rested on Wilkinson's tender rehabilitation yesterday.

Wisely, this time, Woodward chose him at centre in the calm custody of Jerry Guscott. The Bath man could barely get a word in edgeways as Wilkinson buzzed around him as if marshalling the 1st XV at Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire not embarking on an international career which many good judges regard as a birthright. By the end, a streak of mud running down his shirt, tyremarks left by the tractoring run of Peter Walton, any delight in his own performance had been submerged by the prevailing inadequacies of a strangely confused England side.

A pat on the back from Dan Luger, a hug from Alan Tait, his opposite number, and it was off down the tunnel to sift through the Pandora's Box of failings which had allowed Scotland a sniff of victory right to the final whistle. Has there ever been a more cheerless handing over of the Calcutta Cup, once the most prized of possessions? So disgusted was Lawrence Dallaglio by his side's inability to turn a healthy lead into the expected rout that receiving the cup seemed an embarrassment. Had there been a rubbish bin outside the dressing-room door, the battered old tin pot would have been hurled, lid first, in with the tape and the chewing gum.

Whatever joy he might have felt within, Wilkinson caught the mood of disillusioned professionalism. Winning is the mantra of the modern game, but England seem to want it with bows and bells on. "A good experience," Wilkinson called it. "It's a game I'm glad to have under my belt. I know what it's like now. I thought there were good parts and bad parts. There's certainly room for hard work." Hardly a thrilling tale to tell his grandchildren then.

Dallaglio was about to ask some big questions of his defence. Where, for example, had it gone when Tait burst through to score his second try almost unopposed? "We went into cruise mode," the England captain added. Woodward spoke grandly of the "wider picture" and, without saying so exactly, implied that England were aiming for higher technical and tactical ground than the Scots. Quite so. But in tilting at southern hemisphere windmills, England are in danger of coming a cropper closer to home. The arrogance is not very fetching and the subdued Twickenham atmosphere suggested not just that Scotland's tenacity might be rewarded but that a few English hearts wouldn't mind if it was.

In time, Wilkinson will look back fondly on his introduction to the most ancient of rugby rites. His tackling was vital in the finale, his kicking answered a prayer or two, even if his positional naivety was exposed by the excellent Scottish centres. Four out of four is a healthy ratio for a novice kicker and the sureness of his left foot gave England an extra option in defence as well.

There is a refreshing no-nonsense confidence to his place-kicking. Ball down, four paces back, four to the right and a long, slow sweep of his left leg, with full extension. His first conversion was so neatly struck, Wilkinson was turning back to the halfway line long before the ball sailed through the posts. In contrast, Kenny Logan had a patchy afternoon with the boot.

England must learn, now they have a true kicker, to take the simple points on offer. It should not be beyond their dignity. "This is a step up, but I didn't feel too bad with the kicking," Wilkinson said. For a 19-year- old, he has an old head on his slender shoulders. Yesterday's legacy is that he can now look forward rather than back.