Wilkinson fails to inspire as Irish expose England

<b>England 16 Ireland 20: </b>Rising star Sexton sparks clinical Ireland but home side's No 10 proves short on flair / English management faced with same old questions over lack of cutting edge
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There is hardly a High Court judge in the land who would recognise the justice of a forward pack forcing the opposition into a humiliating retreat over more than a quarter of the length of the field and not being awarded the all-important scrum feed when the maul finally hits the deck. What happened during the last knockings at Twickenham measured 9.5 on the Lewis Carroll Scale of Utter Nonsense and was made a dozen times worse by the fact that the brilliant South African referee Mark Lawrence made the correct call under the law, which makes the law an ass.

Seething and spluttering with anger and frustration, Martin Johnson took a very dim view of the affair: indeed, he wore the look of a man hauled up before a disciplinary tribunal on a trumped-up charge – pretty much his default position in the days when he was locking the England scrum rather than managing the England team. Dan Cole, a stand-out performer on his second international start, was equally annoyed. Even Steve Borthwick, who is to outspokenness what Nigel Farage is to European unity, struggled to stay on-message. "I was ... surprised," the captain finally acknowledged after a 20-minute grilling worthy of the Spanish Inquisition.

But Borthwick said something else, and it went to the heart of England's latest failure against a higher-ranked side. "The maul wasn't the only thing that happened during the match," he reminded his audience, tacitly accepting that in areas away from the comfort zone of close-quarter wrestling, the rugby his team produced was a distance short of what will be required at next year's World Cup. If we are going to throw figures around, it is even harder to explain how Ireland scored three knife-through-butter tries from starvation rations of ball – remarkably, they spent less than eight minutes of the second half in possession – than it is to work out how a perfectly organised 25-metre drive can yield nothing of value.

Ireland won because they were sharper, cleverer and infinitely more dynamic at the important moments. These advantages allowed them to wipe out their hosts on the floor – the turnover count was a decisive eight to one in the visitors' favour – and score big points whenever they sniffed an opportunity. Central to their victory were four men: Jonathan Sexton, the new outside-half from Dublin, and a trio of back-row buccaneers in Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip. Try as they might, England could find no answers to the questions they posed.

Sexton played with such poise, and bought himself so much time with his positioning and decision-making, that he made poor Jonny Wilkinson look like a selling plater. The kick towards the right corner that led to Tommy Bowe's opening try on four minutes was a thing of delicate beauty, as was the millimetre-specific pass he threw to Keith Earls for a score down the left. By the time he plays at Twickenham again, he is likely to have established himself as a top-of-the-bill act on the world stage.

Under the circumstances, it was an unfortunate day for Wilkinson to abandon his ultra-conservative, kick-driven game and attempt an impersonation of Phil Bennett. For one thing, it was wet; for another, Wilkinson would struggle to find his cuff, let alone play off it. Having set the contest in motion with a fluffed drop-kick – "I was responsible for the worst kick-off in rugby history about eight years ago and can safely say I've now topped it," he admitted with a wan grin – he tried to bamboozle the Irish with a bizarre concoction of exaggerated passes and slow-motion sidesteps that succeeded in confusing everyone, except the opposition.

Could this extraordinary experiment in counter-intuitive extravagance have been the result of the criticism aimed at Wilkinson in recent weeks? When it comes to his rugby, as opposed to his quasi-philosophical dabblings with the meaning of life, the World Cup-winning stand-off is generally considered immune to outside influences. Erwin Schrodinger's thoughts on quantum physics? Yes. Stuart Barnes' thoughts on how to manage a Test match? No. But it is difficult to believe the cocoon was not penetrated ahead of this game. Given the conditions, both climatic and competitive, there is no other explanation.

His performance was as bold and brave as the day was long: no player ever gave more of himself in England's cause, and Wilkinson never gave more of himself than he did on Saturday. He missed penalties, just as he had in Rome 13 days previously, but the drop-goal he nailed off the "wrong" foot to give his side a 16-13 lead one minute from the end of normal time was a pearl. Equally valuable was his one-man ambushing of the dangerous Earls when the Irish went in hunt of a second try towards the end of the first half.

But it was also muddle-headed and, ultimately, futile. He is no Carter, no Giteau, no Hernandez. He is no Sexton either, and never will be. If the red-rose management are to stick with him, it must be with Wilkinson as was, with all the attendant negatives. If they are to change, there is no point asking him to change with them.

He will not admit it publicly, but Johnson knows this is an issue that must be addressed sooner rather than later. The unexpected and unpleasant shock he received at the weekend was the shellacking dished out by the Irish loose forwards. Ferris was nothing short of sensational, the rock on which England foundered; Heaslip brought innate footballing skill to the mix, not least when he forced Dylan Hartley into a split-second of hesitation with an intelligently delayed one-handed pass in the build-up to his side's early try; Wallace neutralised Lewis Moody with such unnerving ease that the Leicester flanker was substituted early in the second period.

Only once did England, wholly superior at the set-piece and threatening on the drive, find a way through, and that was from the traditional prop's distance of half an inch. Cole's burrowing try was no more than he deserved and it led to a long period of red-rose domination. Not that the Irish were helping themselves at this point: in a knee-clenching incident of friendly fire, Paul O'Connell dealt Brian O'Driscoll a numbing blow to the head and put him off the field. "O'Connell: two knock-ons, one knock-out," muttered an Irish supporter, forlornly.

Yet despite their shortage of ball and their inability to establish even the most temporary of bases in English territory, the visitors always looked capable of taking the spoils. And so it transpired. Three minutes into stoppage time, Tomas O'Leary broke tight from an O'Connell line-out delivery and found Bowe on the optimum angle. Wilkinson could not lay a hand on the big wing from Monaghan; neither James Haskell nor Ugo Monye could hold him.

It was too easy a score, especially given the intensity of the 80-odd minutes preceding it, and it said everything about an England side long on honest toil but woefully short on inspiration. Two years after running rings round Ireland to the tune of 33 points and hinting at a new age of Enlightenment, they are back in the Dark Ages, where the great rugby powers of the southern hemisphere think they belong.

England: D Armitage (London Irish); M Cueto (Sale), M Tait (Sale), R Flutey (Brive), U Monye (Harlequins); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), J Haskell (Stade Francais), L Moody (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements used: L Deacon (Leicester) for Shaw, 4; B Foden (Northampton) for Armitage, 49; J Worsley (Wasps) for Moody, 55; L Mears (Bath) for Hartley, 67; P Hodgson (London Irish) for Care, 81; D Wilson (Bath) for Cole, 81.

Ireland: G Murphy (Leicester); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), K Earls (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), T O'Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).

Replacements used: A Buckley (Munster) for Hayes, 64; A Trimble (Ulster) for O'Driscoll, 70; R O'Gara (Munster) for Sexton 77; L Cullen (Leinster) for O'Callaghan, 77; S Jennings (Leinster) for Wallace, 78.

Referee: M Lawrence (South Africa).

Comments