It appeared to be a gamble on a scale that would make a supercasino look like a bookie's corner shop, but Jonny Wilkinson repaid the Red Rose faithful with a vintage performance. Wearing an England jersey for the first time since landing the drop goal in Sydney 39 months ago that won the World Cup, the stand-off looked as if he had never been away. By the time Brian Ashton replaced Wilkinson in the 74th minute he had contributed 27 points. Not bad for a player who has spent much of his career operating not so much on a knife-edge as a scalpel.
His latest comeback, following a kidney injury which put him out of action for 12 weeks, consisted of about 40 minutes' rugby in a Guinness Premiership match last week, and that was enough to convince Wilkinson and Ashton that he was ready to return to Twickenham in the manner of a long lost hero. Such had been Wilkinson's medical history - he had probably become a subscriber to The Lancet - that there were many people who wagered bets on him not lasting the duration of the match. He didn't, but not for the cynical reason that attracted their money, although he was spitting blood.
"I'd hate to think I was the same player I was three years ago," Wilkinson said. According to Ashton, he was better than ever. "Jonny controlled the game pretty well, his goal-kicking was world class, his tackling was excellent and he managed to get a try." Ashton had the decency to smile about the try that wasn't, which was a lot more than Scotland managed. They were crying blue murder over what they regarded as a couple of awful decisions.
South of Hadrian's Wall, nothing was going to deflect the sweet chariot from the road to recovery after the disastrous autumn campaign. The Calcutta Cup - it was lost in Edinburgh 12 months ago, it was the beginning of England's nightmare - is back at Twickenham, the Red Rose brigade is up and running in the Six Nations and, as points-gatherer supreme and general cheerleader for the shires, Jonny boy, the demi-god, is restored to No 10 and all is well.
Because of Ashton's brave selections - not just the fast-tracking of Wilkinson but the debut of the former Wigan wonder Andy Farrell and the return after a two-year retirement of Jason Robinson, this was one of the most eagerly anticipated internationals since... well, since England played Australia in the World Cup final. The pack, under the new captain, Phil Vickery, laid a very good foundation not only for Wilkinson but for his scrum-half partner Harry Ellis, who had a field day. Wilkinson, of course, was named man of the match although Ellis, who put in a devastating attacking performance, pushed him all the way. The difference is that this is Harry Ellis and not the reincarnation of William Webb Ellis.
England, who had lost eight of their last nine Tests, were 1-7 to beat Scotland yesterday and the odds were just about justified, although Scotland felt hard done by. After an uncertain start Wilkinson was into his kicking stride by the 10th minute, landing a penalty. It was relatively simple and the first of five, and the others were anything but easy. In all he made seven kicks from nine attempts, somehow managing to miss the conversions of two of England's four tries, but also hitting the target with - it was written in the script - a drop goal and that aforementioned try.
Scotland, who have not won here since 1983, scored two tries of their own, the first by Simon Taylor from a cock-up at a line-out, about the first and last serious misfire by England at a set-piece, an area of the game where they held a decisive upper hand. That charitable donation put Scotland 10-6 in front after 25 minutes, and then the England scoresheet took on a familiar, halcyon look: Wilkinson penalty, Wilkinson penalty, Robinson try, etc.
By half-time England were 17-10 ahead, Robinson scoring his first try three minutes before the interval, and a trademark effort it was - a dummy did for Hugo Southwell and the wing handed off Dougie Hall for a touchdown that reminded him what he had been missing for the last couple of seasons. Robinson was fed via Farrell and Wilkinson and the two, rather touchingly, exchanged high fives.
The second half saw England begin to pile it on: Wilkinson penalty, Wilkinson penalty, Robinson try.
At the heart of almost everything was Ellis, and his brilliantly judged kick down the left flank in the 54th minute was good enough to unsettle Sean Lamont, who misjudged the bounce, leaving Robinson with a formality. A lament for Lamont and Wilkinson's conversion from close to the touchline gave his side a 30-13 lead.
This would soon be enhanced, by Wilkinson's hand and foot. It was that man Ellis who tormented the Scottish defence with another powerful break - he found Wilkinson in support and down the right touchline he brilliantly managed to dive and plant the ball over the line with his left hand.
The problem was that the rest of his body was in touch. The video official, Donal Courtney of Ireland, didn't think so, the try was allowed and the Comeback Kid added the points from the acutest of angles.
It was all too much for the mild-mannered Scotland coach, Frank Hadden. Lamont had got a hand to the ball which should have ruled out Robinson's second try and as for Wilkinson's, it was the result of an "unbelievable decision" by the TV match official. It was indeed, but when the Jonny factor kicks in, strange things tend to happen.
"It was good to be back on the field," Wilkinson said. "This was everything I have lived for. We have got lots to work on but we have set our standards and established a base." Vickery had asked for "blood and guts" and he got it, not least from his stand-off, who couldn't leave here without undergoing some form of treatment. He needed stitches to a cut lip. It was the stiff upper one and he wouldn't have felt a thing.Reuse content