Injury keeps Wilkinson from riding to England's rescue against Ireland

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England have dropped to sixth in the world rankings as a result of Sunday's depressing defeat by a half-baked French side whose interest in winning the game at Twickenham appeared marginal at best, and without being too Corporal Jones-ish on the panic front, Andy Robinson's team had better watch out. The Latvians are on a roll having leapfrogged Andorra, and by all accounts, they kick their goals. The way the red-rose army are playing, Riga might be a trip too far.

England have dropped to sixth in the world rankings as a result of Sunday's depressing defeat by a half-baked French side whose interest in winning the game at Twickenham appeared marginal at best, and without being too Corporal Jones-ish on the panic front, Andy Robinson's team had better watch out. The Latvians are on a roll having leapfrogged Andorra, and by all accounts, they kick their goals. The way the red-rose army are playing, Riga might be a trip too far.

That the world champions are ahead of the horribly compromised Scots after two rounds of the Six Nations Championship is no cause for celebration, especially as the latter have an even-money chance of winning their next game, against Italy at Murrayfield on Saturday week. England play in Dublin 24 hours later, and their underdog status will be such that their pre-match meal might consist of a can of Pedigree Chum and a bowl of water. Ireland are more worried about Wales in Cardiff next month, which says something about the shifting sands of European rugby.

This bonfire of the certainties is something of a welcome novelty, for it is an age since neither England nor France were the form side in the tournament. Ireland and Wales are streets ahead of the field in terms of strategy and execution and on the evidence of last weekend's matches in Rome and Edinburgh, they also have an advantage in the more abstract areas of the game - in leadership, in confidence and, in the case of a revitalised Red Dragonhood, in imagination.

Quite what the French are doing on the invention front is anybody's guess. Anglo-Saxonised by their head coach, Bernard Laporte, on the entirely logical grounds that they were constantly being betrayed by their own indiscipline, the pudding has been over-egged to such a degree that they are now churning out the kind of stuff associated with England circa 1986. "We have played two matches, scored one try through a charge-down and have created one decent attacking move in 160 minutes of rugby," said one respected chronicler of the Tricolore game on Sunday night. "Yes, we've won both games. But who wants to watch us play in such a way?"

He should worry. Ask Andy Robinson, the beleaguered head coach of England, if he would rather win ugly or lose beautifully, and he would take Hattie Jacques over Helen Mirren any day of the week. "Without Jonny Wilkinson, this English team has no dimension any more," said Christophe Dominici, the French wing, after the dark, dank offering at Twickenham. And wouldn't you just know it, Saint Jonny of the Golden Boot will not be back in the red-rose mix at Lansdowne Road on 27 February, despite all that pre-tournament guff about his "targeting the Ireland match" as his return from the knee injury he suffered on Heineken Cup business with Newcastle last month.

"He won't be fit for Dublin, there's no doubt about that," confirmed his director of rugby at Kingston Park, the former England outside-half Rob Andrew. The games in March against Italy and Scotland are possibilities, allegedly, but there is so much smoke and mirrors about Wilkinson's various physical ailments that there is no guarantee of him making either date - or, indeed, the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, which begins in May. And anyway, Dominici was incorrect in identifying Wilkinson as England's lost saviour. The man they cannot replace at any price never kicked a goal in his life.

Since Martin Johnson's retirement as captain and resident hard-nut a little over a year ago, England have lost eight of their 13 matches. During the four-and-a-half years he spent as captain of his country, the Leicester lock lost only five of the games in which he appeared, all but one of them in the first 12 months of his tenure. That is quite a statistic, and tells quite a tale.

The French team's defensive coach, Dave Ellis, was nearer the mark than Dominici when he analysed England's current shortcomings. "You only have to look at the men who aren't there any more, people like Johnson, who was an immense leader," he said. "Wilkinson is not in the same category as a leader, although he gives England so much confidence when he is on the field. I don't think they have the personnel there to carry the banner of world champions at the moment." There you have it, in a nutshell.

Wales have lost Dafydd Jones, the aggressive Llanelli Scarlets flanker who performed so well against England at the Millennium Stadium, for the rest of the tournament, thanks to his continuing problems with a pelvic injury. Italy, meanwhile, will lose their gifted No 8, Sergio Parisse, for at least one match if a disciplinary panel finds him guilty of stamping on another Jones, the outside-half Stephen, during the game with the Welsh on Saturday.

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