It will be the indiscipline that does for England. Not the tawdry off-field stuff – the boozing and carousing in subterranean slum-hole bars, the crass behaviour in hotel bedrooms, the extraordinary lengths to which certain individuals are prepared to go to abuse the trust Martin Johnson has placed in them – although this will surely bring them down if it continues. We are talking here of the technical errors at scrum and ruck, line-out and maul. The red-rose challengers' penalty-count rose to double figures again as Scotland threatened their World Cup ambitions so seriously that Johnson feared the worst at one point during the second half, and they cannot keep relying on Jonny Wilkinson to minimise the consequences of their folly.
For all anyone knows – and we can include Johnson and the England medics in this – Wilkinson may not even be available come next Saturday's quarter-final against France. The celebrated outside-half visited an Auckland hospital yesterday for a scan on his damaged right arm and while the first results were inconclusive, the manager could not hide his concern. "I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't worried, very worried, about Jonny," he said. "We're a little too close to the game to have a really clear idea of what's wrong and it might be a soft-tissue thing, but it's important to start preparing for France as quickly as possible. We'll have to see how it is in 24 hours."
Mike Tindall, the centre, also has an injury – he was accidentally trodden on by Delon Armitage and ended Saturday's tourniquet-tight game with a dead leg – and Johnson said he was worried about him too. In truth, he may not be as worried as all that. Tindall has caused more than his fair share of trouble on this trip, having poisoned the red-rose well with his antics in Queenstown. It will be no surprise if the manager ditches him for the meeting with France, although the possibility of running Toby Flood in the No 12 position rather depends on Wilkinson's state of wellbeing.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson was profoundly underwhelmed by his side's first-half performance against the Scots, who, for long periods of the game, looked perfectly capable of winning the game by the necessary eight-point margin. "It might help if we started making things easier for ourselves," he remarked, his grumpy tone lightened only by notes of pure relief. "I was very disappointed by our lack of intensity at the start. The Scots had more urgency; there was more certainty about them and they were more accurate. We talk all week about beginning well, yet we keep giving easy points to the opposition." Does it make him fearful? "Of course I fear it," he replied. "In games like this one – and in the games that lie ahead – points almost count double. There are some harsh words to be said, because we have to hit the ground running against the better teams."
Even the most tournament-hardened English personnel, Wilkinson included, were sorely tested by Saturday's occasion. The outside-half missed the sticks with three penalty shots before finally nailing a wide-angled goal – the outcome of England's first really serious assault on the Scots, which had taken them more than half an hour to construct. He would go on to fluff one short-range drop-goal attempt and have another charged down, but the solitary drop he managed to get right was as important as any in his career, with the obvious exception of the World Cup-winner in Sydney eight years ago.
Scotland had opened up a 12-3 lead: just the kind of gap they needed to maintain their own interest in the tournament and, more likely than not, end England's into the bargain. Wilkinson restarted from halfway, plopping the ball into a space dividing one group of hesitant opposition forwards from another, and took full advantage of the confusion by banging over a pearl of a kick, from almost 40 metres off the "wrong" foot. It was a sickening blow for the underdogs, a full-force heavyweight punch to the solar-plexus. The Scots knew it, too – none more so than their resident Englishman, the coach Andy Robinson, who went an alarming shade of white, then crimson, then white again.
From there on in, England just about held the whip hand. The Scots put them in peril twice more: firstly when their midfield sucked in England with the old commit-and-spin routine to free Joe Ansbro down the right and allow Dan Parks to kick across field towards the excellent Richie Gray; then when Parks went for the "Hail Mary" option and hung a skyscraper kick on the England posts. Nothing came of either opportunity, however, and when England chiselled out a chance of their own three minutes into stoppage time, Chris Ashton sprinted to the right corner for the sole try of the evening.
That score had more than a little to do with Toby Flood, whose 10-minute cameo was rich in wit and imagination. It would not have occurred to everyone – and probably not to Wilkinson – to spurn a late penalty opportunity at 12-9 down and go for the pressure line-out option instead, and it may well be that of the two outside-halves, the only man likely to float a lovely cut-out to Ashton off the left hand was the one who actually did so. The longer England spend on the field without Flood's subtlety and sophistication, the more bone-headed their midfield play appears.
Naturally, Johnson was quick to point out that for all England's problems, they have reached the knock-out phase. "That was a gritty pool, I think it's fair to say," he commented. "And let's remember that for nine or 10 of our guys, this was the biggest game of their careers by far. We weren't clinical – far from it – but there was a lot of character shown out there. The thing now is for the players to use this experience to increase their understanding of what a World Cup is about.
"We can't keep starting slowly. I thought we were ready to go at the start of the game, but we weren't. I'm not talking about us just walking out there and rolling someone over in a knock-out match: no one would love it more than me if we put three quick tries past the French next weekend, but that's not likely to happen. There's never going to be a perfect ride, but I wouldn't mind a smoother one."
There was nothing remotely smooth about this. Five minutes from time, with Scotland ahead by three, the World Cup-winning All Black forward Alan Whetton – one of the revered 1987 vintage and as good a blind-side flanker as ever wore the silver fern – tapped on the window of the coaches' box and waved a friendly greeting to Johnson. The manager's response? A glare not so much dark as pitch black. From memory, Whetton's timing as a player was a little better.
Scorers: England – Try: Ashton. Conversion: Flood. Penalties: Wilkinson 2. Drop goal: Wilkinson. Scotland – Penalties: Paterson 2, Parks. Drop goal: Parks.
England: B Foden; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, M Tindall (T Flood 75), D Armitage; J Wilkinson (M Banahan 81), B Youngs (R Wigglesworth 77); M Stevens (A Corbisiero 76), S Thompson (D Hartley 69), D Cole, L Deacon, C Lawes (T Palmer 58), T Croft, L Moody (capt, N Easter 54), J Haskell (Moody 66).
Scotland: C Paterson; M Evans (N De Luca h-t), J Ansbro, S Lamont, S Danielli; R Jackson (D Parks 4), M Blair (C Cusiter 75); A Jacobsen (A Dickinson 70), R Ford, E Murray, R Gray, A Kellock (capt), A Strokosch (N Hines 66), J Barclay (R Rennie 65), R Vernon.
Referee: C Joubert (South Africa).
Man for man marking
Still stuck in Nowheresville, the place where nothing happens. Generally tidy at the back, although the odd high ball worried him. 5.5
Two fine kicks as England fought their way off the ropes and took his one chance with customary relish. 7.5
The Scots were not as generous as the Romanians in waving him through unopposed, but featured strongly after the interval. 7
No one ever questioned his guts, but somewhere along the line, a class inside centre is going to tear him up. 4.5
When things were awry in the first half, the occasional wing was the pick of the back division. Quick and aggressive. 7.5
The curate's egg in human form. Very dodgy in places, his vital second-half drop goal was a thing of beauty. 6
Dublin revisited. The scrum-half lost both his bearings and his rag, just as he did against Ireland back in March. 4
His set-to with Euan Murray kept the referee busy, if not entertained. Still conceding penalties, and therefore a concern. 4.5
The old lag of the tight five used every trick in the book to hold things together during the bad times. 6
The front-row trio were not as one. Like Stevens, the tight-head prop had the referee on his back. 5
Rarely visible to the naked eye, but he never disappeared. Had he done so, the Scots might have made it home. 6.5
Much was expected, precious little was delivered. The young titan-to-be fell early to the shepherd's crook. 4.5
England's best forward? Probably. Without him the England line-out, always under pressure, would have fallen apart completely. 7.5
Bruised, battered, bloodied – the captain was hurting come the end, but did enough to keep the dangerous Barclay at bay. 6.5
Less persuasive than against Argentina, but always thereabouts. Without his energy, things would have been worse at the interval. 5.5
Replacements: Nick Easter
No pace, sharp instincts. Martin Johnson kept the Harlequin on the field after Moody's return from the blood bin and rightly so. 6.5
Important. England needed ball at the last knockings, and that meant tightening things up at the line-out. Carried well too. 7
The hooker has visited some low points during this tournament. Given his chance here, he crackled with enthusiasm once again. 6.5
To his credit, he refuses to give best to Wilkinson. Bold decision-making, a try-creating pass and a wonderful conversion. 7.5
England's scrum went full steam ahead the moment he replaced Stevens. A handy man to throw on at the death. 6.5
An immediate handling mistake might have been costly, but at least he kept a cool head, unlike Youngs. 5
The last of the replacements, he helped raise the barricades against Scotland's final attack. 5
The grand old man of the back division is slowing up but some of his running lines were slide-rule accurate. 6.5
Threatening with his twinkle-toed footwork and very bold. Badly missed after he limped off at the interval. 6
He certainly has a future. Not particularly inconvenienced by Tuilagi, he played intelligently when shunted to the right wing. 6.5
Andy Robinson's decision to play him at 12 bore fruit to a degree. Powerful on the hoof, strong in the tackle. 6
One clever kick ahead almost earned Scotland a try. One dopey kick ahead dropped them in the mire. Typical Danielli. 5
Scotland based their attacking game around him, but he was gone inside five minutes. Unfortunate. 5
Terrific for the most part. The Lions tourist outplayed his opposite number and made a lot of good choices. 7.5
Never less than combative – an old-style, roly-poly loose-head specialist with good mobility and a decent pair of hands. 6
Good in parts. Chanced his arm with the referee, not always successfully, but scrummaged strongly against the substantial Thompson. 5.5
Brought in to boss the set-pieces, he certainly asked some awkward questions at close quarters. Less eye-catching in the open. 6
The shock of blond hair gets him noticed, but there is more to him than that. Impressive, in a Lion-to-be kind of way. 7
Pumped up from the start, the recalled captain put himself about all night without finding the best of himself. 5.5
He tackled, as always. He carried, as always. England's forwards gradually suppressed him, though – and smothered the Scots into the bargain. 5.5
A thorough nuisance on the floor, where the fur was flying. Not vintage, but very reasonable all the same. 6
Tougher than he looks, but faded from view as the England forwards started to choke off the Scottish uprising. 5.5
Replacements: Dan Parks
On early for the unlucky Jackson, he gave it his best shot. Made the right choices most of the time. 6.5
Nick de Luca
His fumble close to the England line did not help his country's cause, but solid otherwise. 5.5
Scotland needed their in-house Aussie at his most aggressive as the clock ticked down, but he seemed a little muted. 5
Robinson gave him the final quarter, but little happened for the sevens specialist in open field. 5
Found himself in scrummaging retreat as England turned the screw late on. 4.5
Replaced Blair with five minutes of normal time remaining. No chance to make the difference the Scots were craving. 5Reuse content