Wilkinson lifts England after injury gloom over Moody

England 23 Wales 19
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The Independent Online

Lewis Moody is English rugby's answer to the limbless knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

You can almost hear him shouting, "Let's call it a draw" as he is flown off the high veld by air ambulance after fighting an unequal battle with wave upon wave of mountainous Springboks, armed with nothing more substantial than the sporting equivalent of blunt toothpick. Yet not even the red-rose captain – a man the barely sane people who play this rough old game for a living have nicknamed "Crazy Horse" – can reinvent the mother tongue and hope to get away with it. Not this close to a World Cup.

"It was precautionary," Moody claimed after leaving Twickenham at the slowest of slow hobbles, supported by two members of the medical staff, without whom he would not have been in a position to hobble anywhere. It was less an interesting choice of words as wrong ones – whatever the 33-year-old flanker was trying to prevent had already happened. And while Martin Johnson, the England manager, did his level best to avoid turning a drama into a crisis by voicing fresh doubts about his captain's participation at next month's global gathering in New Zealand, he could not disguise his concern.

"Whenever you play – whenever you train, come to that – you put yourself at risk," Johnson said. "There's no other way, because if you back off and try not to do anything in rugby you get hammered anyway. These injuries often take 48 hours to settle down: it's a question of waiting to see where things stand and then dealing with it. At this stage, I hope Lewis will be able to get back on the field before we leave for the tournament. Equally, we're always thinking about the next man in, because this stuff happens."

These events offered a possible explanation for Johnson's change of tone regarding Moody's status leading into the opening round of a three-match programme that continues against the same opposition in Cardiff this weekend and concludes with what is certain to be a tough workout against the buoyant Irish in Dublin in 19 days' time. Having stated unequivocally, "Lewis is our captain", as recently as June, the manager opted for the "definitely maybe" approach as the first of the high summer hit-outs drew near.

Had he seen something in training that left him wondering whether all was well with Moody's troublesome right knee? Johnson wasn't saying, but his old Leicester mucker was heavily strapped when he took the field. Early missed tackles – first on the Welsh full-back Morgan Stoddart, then on Rhys Priestland, who would threaten to win the game for the visitors in the final half-hour – reinforced the notion that Moody was something less than his old self. While he found his bearings in time to play his part in England's domination of proceedings either side of the interval, that improvement came to a sudden end when he stayed down after a botched attacking line-out on 66 minutes.

At that point, Wales were busily turning a losing cause into a 50-50 contest and were looking distinctly dangerous with ball in hand. Shane Williams, a little on the rusty side after fitness issues of his own, bagged a corner-flag try on the hour after some characteristically gung-ho work from the scrum-half Mike Phillips. For the remainder of the contest all the standout performers were wearing red: Bradley Davies and Sam Warburton up front; Priestland, Jamie Roberts and the startlingly accomplished teenager George North behind the scrum.

But for Jonny Wilkinson's pragmatic approach, things might easily have turned out differently. His second drop goal of the afternoon, this one off the "wrong" peg à la the World Cup final night in 2003, kept England just out of reach despite North's try in stoppage time.

Wilkinson is no Dan Carter when it comes to running front-foot ball with hostile intent; if truth be told, he is not even a Priestland. When it comes to the scores on the doors, though, he tends to leave a bigger mark than anyone. It will be no particular surprise to see him starting a big game or two in New Zealand, when the rugby is for real.

By the same measure, no one will die of shock if Manu Tuilagi, the Samoan newcomer to the England midfield, books in for bed and breakfast. He did not get vast amounts of change out of Roberts or Jonathan Davies, both of whom stepped up to the challenge of meeting the human bowling ball as it rolled towards them at a perilous rate of knots, but the youngster did many good things in both attack and defence that dispelled all doubts of his readiness for a World Cup campaign.

His intelligent tracking of, and tap-tackle on, the predatory Shane Williams was almost as impressive as the line he cut on Wilkinson in scoring at the posts.

Tuilagi was joined in the credit column by Matt Stevens and James Haskell – the two forwards who did most to put the squeeze on a struggling Welsh pack in the second quarter and lay the foundations for victory – and Delon Armitagewho suggested he has rediscovered the art of troubling opposition defences, as opposed to troubling disciplinary panels. By intercepting Toby Faletau's scoring pass to Priestland and running the ball back 50 metres to within stretching distance of the Welsh line, he reminded the Twickenham audience – and himself – of where his talent, rather than his temper, might take him.

"I feel like I've missed a lifetime of rugby," Armitage said afterwards, referring to the suspensions that kept him out of sight and out of mind last season. "But I want that shirt back now and Ben Foden [the current first-choice No 15] knows it."

Armitage has a way to go before he can hope to reclaim a place in Johnson's strongest side, but the journey is at least under way.

England: Tries Haskell, Tuilagi. Conversions Wilkinson 2. Penalty Wilkinson. Drop goals Wilkinson 2.

Wales: Tries North 2, Shane Williams. Conversions Priestland 2.

England: D Armitage (London Irish); M Banahan (Bath), M Tuilagi (Leicester), R Flutey (Wasps), M Cueto (Sale); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Hartley (Northampton), M Stevens (Saracens), S Shaw (Wasps), T Palmer (Stade Français), T Croft (Leicester), L Moody (Bath, capt), J Haskell (Ricoh Black Rams). Replacements: R Wigglesworth (Saracens) for Care, 62; L Mears (Bath) for Hartley, 62; D Wilson (Bath) for Stevens 62; M Botha (Saracens) for Shaw, 62; C Sharples (Gloucester) for Tuilagi, 64; T Wood (Northampton) for Moody, 66; Stevens for Corbisiero, 78; C Hodgson (Saracens) for Wilkinson, 85.

Wales: M Stoddart (Scarlets); G North (Scarlets), J Davies (Scarlets), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Ospreys); R Priestland (Scarlets), M Phillips (Bayonne); P James (Ospreys), H Bennett (Ospreys), C Mitchell (Exeter), B Davies (Cardiff Blues), A W Jones (Ospreys), D Lydiate (Newport Gwent-Dragons), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues, capt), T Faletau (Newport-Gwent Dragons). Replacements: S Williams (Scarlets) for Stoddart, 50; R Jones (Ospreys) for Faletau, 58; T Knoyle (Scarlets) for Phillips, 65; L Burns (Newport Gwent-Dragons) for Bennett, 70; R Bevington (Ospreys) for James, 70; L Charteris (Newport Gwent-Dragons) for A W Jones, 70.

Referee: S Walsh (Australia).

Question Marks

What should England do with...

Simon Shaw

Old Father Time will be 38 at the start of next month and has no business thinking about another World Cup. Except on Saturday, he played like a 25-year-old.

Riki Flutey

The Wasps midfielder is likely to travel, for the very good reason that England have precious few alternatives. Still some way short of his best, though.

What can Wales do about...

Alun Wyn Jones

The lock looked like a world-beater in the early stages of the last Lions tour. He looked anything but at Twickenham, where Bradley Davies eclipsed him.

Toby Faletau

You can see why the back-rower interests the coaches, but individual errors at World Cups tend to ensure an early flight home for everyone.