England 42 Scotland 20: Wilkinson kick-starts England's return to power

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The more Jonny Wilkinson sought to deflect the adulation - in the direction of the England pack, who carted the lightweight Scottish forwards around Twickenham in the way eight looters might have emptied a beach of its washed-up treasures; towards the scrum-half Harry Ellis, who generated more sparks than a loose electric cable - the more he found himself smothered in it. Some, like Donal Courtney, did not even wait for the final whistle before falling at the feet of the Chosen One. How else to explain the Irishman's decision to award Wilkinson the most dubious of homecoming tries? It was the sporting equivalent of a judge giving the Acid Bath Murderer the benefit of the doubt.

Scotland were aghast at the television match official's action at the time, and were still knotted in their fury 24 hours later. Frank Hadden, their coach, restricted himself to monosyllabes when pressed on the subject yesterday, but those monosyllabes spoke volumes. The fact that Wilkinson had to perform a minor miracle of athleticism simply to get as close to a legitimate score as he did was entirely lost on the visitors.

It was not lost on the Twickenham crowd. Nor will it be lost on the wider rugby community, who much preferred England in their rudderless, Wilkinsonless version. A man who takes the virtue of self-deprecating modesty to its very extremes - "I'm happy enough with that performance," he said through a mouthful of stitches, the result of an unexpected meeting with the elbow of the industrious No 8 David Callam - he nevertheless carries with him an air of authority that forces opponents to doubt themselves. If the world champions could barely remember what it was to have Wilkinson among their number, they instantly recognised his value.

There were big chunks of the old Wilkinson on display as he put more than three years of injury hassle behind him, breaking the Calcutta Cup record set by his mentor, Rob Andrew, with a 27-point haul drawn from the "full house" of try, conversion, penalty and drop goal. The tackling was characteristically gung-ho, the tactical kicking beautifully judged, the marksmanship relentless. The Scots must have felt they were being beaten on the same bruise, over and over again. There was only so much they could take, and they reached their limit well before the hour.

More excitingly still, there was the shock of the new. According to the head coach Brian Ashton, who uniquely left the selection of Wilkinson entirely up to Wilkinson himself, the outside-half has moved onwards and upwards in terms of his skill-set over the three years since England last saw him.

"His footwork is really good now - certainly better than it was," Ashton said. "He creates doubts in the minds of defenders more effectively than he once did. Also, he passes anywhere between five and 15 metres with unerring accuracy, given a little space in which to work. To my mind, Andy Farrell gave him that space in this game."

Ah, Farrell. To judge from the pre-match comments of hardened rugby league types, the former hero of the 13-a-side game would use his international union debut to illustrate the supremacy of his old code by flicking million-dollar passes of either hand without breaking sweat. In the event, he struggled to impose himself on proceedings. There were moments of promise when, with Wilkinson at the bottom of a ruck and out of the game, he took on the role of first receiver and distributor-in-chief. But there were also bad moments - a missed tackle on Sean Lamont, a misdirected cut-out to Josh Lewsey. He also looked slow, to the degree that it was difficult to recall a less mobile presence in an England back division once heavily populated by carthorses.

Ashton was honest enough to acknowledge this startling lack of pace, but stuck to his guns on Farrell's wider meaning to the England cause. "I thought Andy's distribution and organisation were outstanding," he said. "He'll get through the first line of a defence, too. If he's not fast enough to get away after making the break, it's our job to create a game around that." Wilkinson was equally impressed. "When I get lost around the pitch, as I often do, it's good to have Andy stepping in and saying, 'Right, this is where we're going from here'," he said.

Farrell and Wilkinson were involved, as was the excellent Mike Tindall, in the outstanding try of the encounter, which fell to Jason Robinson on his return to national colours. Robinson's finish tight to the left touchline - a step inside Hugo Southwell, a blast on the after-burner to get away from the covering Dougie Hall - brought back memories of his blinding effort for the Lions in Brisbane in 2001. He is, and always will be, a left wing of the highest calibre. What he is not, and never was, is a full-back. England's decision to play him in the latter position between 2001 and 2005 was wrong, with a capital "w". Happily, Ashton has it right.

Robinson scored a second time, capitalising on Lamont's embarrassing pratfall towards the end of the third quarter. It was this try that broke Scotland, who had strived manfully in the loose but found themselves cleaned out in the tight and outgunned in midfield. Thereafter, Wilkinson contributed his levitating finish at the right corner and Magnus Lund topped and tailed a thoroughly encouraging display on the open-side flank with the softest of blind-side tries off a catch-and-drive from the line-out. As Muhammad Ali used to say: "Rumble, young man, rumble."

All of which was highly satisfactory from Ashton's perspective. "We've found a starting point for this team," the coach said. He was unwilling to go further, for the very good reason that the finishing point remains a universe away. For all the schmoozing around Wilkinson, this victory was won by the England pack, whose driving game proved far too potent for the Scots. Will Phil Vickery and company drive France off the field next month? For that matter, will they drive the Italians out of Twickenham and halfway down the A316 this coming Saturday? There are acid tests ahead, all of which will ask different questions of different units, with the forwards first in line.

"Let's just enjoy the moment, and then get down to some work," said Vickery, whose captaincy record remains unblemished. He knows, as do all his fellow forwards, that heavier packs will stand their ground, denying Ellis the space he exploited so exhilaratingly and Farrell the armchair in which he resided from first minute to last.

There again, the likes of Matt Stevens and Steve Thompson will be back in the fray by the time England fly to South Africa in May for two Tests with the Springboks. The world champions may still be down in the gutter, but at least they are up on all fours and looking at the stars. When Ashton promised the public a dose of "no-bullshit rugby", he wasn't... well, you know.

England: Tries Robinson 2, Wilkinson, Lund; Conversions Wilkinson 2; Penalties Wilkinson 5; Drop goal Wilkinson. Scotland: Tries Taylor, Dewey; Conversions Paterson 2; Penalties Paterson 2.

England: O Morgan (Gloucester); J Lewsey (Wasps), M Tindall (Gloucester), A Farrell (Saracens), J Robinson (Sale); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), H Ellis (Leicester); P Freshwater (Perpignan), G Chuter (Leicester), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), L Deacon (Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), J Worsley (Wasps), M Lund (Sale), M Corry (Leicester). Replacements: T Rees (Wasps) for Worsley, 65; T Flood (Newcastle) for Wilkinson, 78; L Mears (Bath) for Chuter, 78; J White (Leicester) for Vickery, 78.

Scotland: H Southwell (Edinburgh); S Lamont (Northampton), M Di Rollo (Edinburgh), A Henderson (Glasgow), C Paterson (Edinburgh, capt); D Parks (Glasgow), C Cusiter; G Kerr (both Borders), D Hall (Edinburgh), E Murray (Glasgow), J Hamilton (Leicester), A Kellock (Glasgow), S Taylor (Edinburgh), K Brown (Borders), D Callam (Edinburgh). Replacements: S Murray (Edinburgh) for Kellock, 52; A Jacobsen (Edinburgh) for Kerr, 56; Kellock for Hamilton, 62; R Dewey (Edinburgh) for Henderson, 64; A Hogg (Edinburgh) for Brown, 64; R Ford (Borders) for Hall 66; R Lawson (Gloucester) for Cusiter, 70; R Lamont (Glasgow) for Parks, 73.

Referee: M Jonker (South Africa).

Twickenham details


Scrums won/lost 5/0
Lineouts won/lost 14/0
Pens conceded 13
Turnovers won 3
Passes completed 129
Line breaks 8
Possession kicked 17
Tackles made/missed 66/5
Total errors made 6


Scrums won/lost 8/0
Lineouts won/lost 12/1
Pens conceded 8
Turnovers won 1
Passes completed 88
Line breaks 2
Possession kicked 18
Tackles made/missed 89/8
Total errors made 9


Corry (England) 11
Tindall (England) 9
Ellis (England) 6


Taylor (Scotland) 13
Lund (Scotland) 11
Callam (Scotland) 9


Tindall (England) 4
Farrell (England) 2
Ellis (England) 1