Wilkinson finds a drop of class when it matters
Sunday 02 October 2011
Decisions, decisions. Jonny Wilkinson has made a few, most of them rather good. There was the right-footed drop-goal that won the World Cup in 2003; there was the move from the banks of the Tyne to the coast of the Mediterranean that resuscitated his career and brought him here to Eden Park. When, in due course, the great goalkicker reflects on some of the decisions he made in pushing his country towards another global quarter-final, what will he make of them?
He will surely be pretty damned happy with his snap shot at the end of the third quarter, just as his colleagues were wondering if a flight to Heathrow was on the cards. Scotland, dominant for the first 40 minutes, had just moved 12-3 ahead – enough to send them into the last eight at England's expense – when Wilkinson set things moving with a tantalisingly flighted restart. Catastrophically, the Scots hesitated; instantly, the left-footer at No 10 computed the possibilities and struck a long-range drop, once again off his "wrong" right peg.
Dave Alred, the kicking coach, would have called it a "middle of the middle" job. Unfortunately for him, he was serving a match-day ban for his part in last weekend's ball-manipulation fiasco and was watching from his hotel.
If the contest turned on any one thing, it turned on this – and not for the first time in a match of genuine significance, it turned on Jonny-boy.
"He keeps backing himself to do those things," said Martin Johnson, the England manager. "I've pointed out before that there's always a reason to pick him. You have to trust him in such circumstances."
Johnson spoke a good deal about character after a match he described as the most important of his managerial career. Whatever Wilkinson lacks as an instigator, an enabler, a creator, no one can question his competitive spirit, his focus, his nerve. It was not as though he was feeling in the pink when the big moment arrived; hell, he had missed three penalties in the second quarter and skewed a short-range drop in the minutes after the interval. It takes someone special to do something special under those circumstances.
Admittedly, this latest of the 36 drop-goals he has landed in his Test career for England and the British and Irish Lions – a phenomenal tally – merely helped England out of their pool, but leaving aside the really famous one in Sydney eight years ago, there are not too many that have counted for more. Add to this the left-sided penalty he kicked five minutes past the hour to boil the gap down to three points and you have quite a contribution, even if he was wayward with some of his other spot-kicks.
Toby Flood, understudy again after spending 18 months as male lead, was none too pleased at being overlookedfor this game and Johnson acknowledged that the selection had been a tough one. When Flood, on the field for the stricken Mike Tindall, assumed pivot duties following Wilkinson's departure with an arm injury, he too made an impact. Would the senior man have spurned a penalty chance at the last knockings and opted for a touch-finder instead?
Who knows? Flood did, and Chris Ashton's match-winning try was the consequence.
That, though, is the beauty of having light and shade at No 10. Almost as beautiful, but not quite, as having a drop-goal expert who hits the spot at the crucial moments, no matter what.
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