Wilkinson: We must stop errors or it's game over

World Cup winner warns England are running out of chances to hit their stride in 'do-or-die' tournament
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The Independent Online

There is a little sanity running through the England camp all of a sudden, in contrast to the lunacies of Queenstown week, which fed directly into the poor performance against Georgia four days ago. Toby Flood made a lot of sense when he picked over the frailties and fragilities evident in the team's performance at Otago Stadium, and yesterday his rival outside-half Jonny Wilkinson – famously accused of being a "basket case" during the 2003 tournament in Australia – ploughed the same analytical furrow. How Martin Johnson must hope everyone is listening.

"It's difficult to explain some aspects of World Cup tournaments and I've pretty much given up trying," remarked the great goal-kicker, who had a good deal to say during the team meeting called on Monday as a means of lancing any boils that might have developed. "But I know that if you don't get it right, sooner or later 'next week' doesn't happen for you. World Cup rugby is do or die and it's been that way for me right from the start. That's why we must keep making the most of every second we have to train and prepare.

"To me, it's about being accountable. What happened against Georgia could have cost us very badly, because we gave them the chance to score 20-odd points through penalties. Who knows what will happen next time we do that? It could leave us in a place where we can't get back. It has to stop."

This is Wilkinson's fourth World Cup, and he had his share of trauma in each of his three previous visits to the tournament. Controversially dropped by Clive Woodward before the 1999 quarter-final against the Springboks – "Jonny was in the side when I went to bed the night before the game and out of it when I woke up," recalled Brian Ashton, the England attack coach at that time – he played poorly against both Samoa and Wales in 2003 before coming up trumps when it counted most, on final night in Sydney.

Four years ago, injury spared him first-hand experience of the chastening 36-0 pool-stage defeat at the hands of the South Africans, but he quickly became part of a solution that took England to a second successive showpiece occasion. "That South Africa match flagged up a path we had to go down, and thank God we did," he recalled. "I don't think we're searching for answers in the same way now, but there is an understanding that we can't keep making the same errors. We gave away penalties against Argentina and gave them away again against Georgia. Once is a mistake, twice is more than that. Three times? It just can't happen."

After the Georgia match, a number of players – the scrum-half Ben Youngs and the No 8 James Haskell included – were heavily critical of their colleagues' indiscipline. This led to reports of a split in the ranks, with backs blaming forwards and vice versa. According to both Wilkinson and his fellow senior professional, the hooker Steve Thompson, nothing could be further from the truth.

"Our team meeting was just a team meeting," Wilkinson insisted. "It was no different to the kind of review we would usually conduct after a match. The freshest meetings are the ones after a game, when you're hurting about the things that haven't gone well and wishing you'd done them differently. When the video shows you how much better it could have been there's always some disappointment, but that's normal. A lot of people have spoken up and had an input, but there's been nothing more to it than that."

Thompson, in his bluff and hearty way, put it a little more colourfully. "There's some frustration around, but there's honesty too: stabbing in the belly is always better than stabbing in the back," he commented. "We're just doing what's necessary. We've been together a long time and like all relationships, things can get a little stale and you end up having a bit of an argument. Then you make up."

Both Wilkinson and Thompson trained fully yesterday, which was more than could be said for four of their brethren. There was no sign of life from Nick Easter, who missed the Georgia match with a back problem allegedly caused by switching from a hard mattress in Queenstown to a soft one in Dunedin – not a very honourable wound for a big, strong back-row forward. The full-back Ben Foden missed the session because of a sore side and the prop Alex Corbisiero with a calf problem. Another front-rower, Matt Stevens, was still struggling with the sprained ankle that led to his substitution on Saturday.

England have made no move to draft Thomas Waldrom, the New Zealand-born No 8 from Leicester, as a formal member of their squad. Waldrom has been summoned here as cover for Easter, but is likely to fly straight back out again if the Harlequin's condition improves over the next few days.

Mike Tindall, who led England in their opening pool match against Argentina before finding himself at the centre of a publicity firestorm during the rest and recuperation break in Queenstown, is likely to return to the starting line-up for this weekend's match with Romania. The way the side is shaping up in training, Tindall will resume at inside-centre, with Wilkinson at outside-half. Mark Cueto, yet to play because of periodic back spasms, is in line to appear at left wing, with two veterans of the 2003 triumph, Thompson and Lewis Moody, featuring in the pack.

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