Wilkinson's transition is part of English evolution
Sunday 27 February 2011
This was always likely to be more primitive than post-modern, more grunt than grace. This was, after all, England v France, not the one-sided affair at Twickenham two weeks earlier that yielded eight tries against a porous Italy defence.
It was the examination that England required. Against Wales and Italy they started by running and carried on in the same way; here France cut down their space (not always legally) and suddenly England found the pretty rugby rather more difficult to play.
The introduction of Alex Corbisiero only emphasised the point. Against Italy, the young London Irishman from New York made as comfortable a debut as any man could wish, his technique as a prop required for only five scrums. But the departure of a limping Andrew Sheridan allowed Corbisiero to test himself against Nicolas Mas, whose attitude is as short and direct as his name.
So we could postpone another celebration of Chris Ashton's talent, leave his pursuit of Cyril Lowe's eight tries in one championship for another day. Instead we were able to see how well Ben Youngs' talent held up and admire the kicking of Toby Flood and Dimitri Yachvili.
Yachvili, the Biarritz scrum half, knows Twickenham and England well. This was his 50th cap and he has scored more points against England than any other opponent. His second penalty carried him past 300 Test points and raised vivid memories of those games between 2004 and 2006, when he scored 19, 18 and 16 points in games won by France.
His was a very specific selection by Marc Lièvremont, of a player he has not always favoured. It was no criticism of Morgan Parra, more an acknowledgement of Yachvili's success against England. Yachvili's timing of the pass was influential any time France developed any rhythm in a game that lacked that quality.
But such games are also tests of temperament, of what Sir Clive Woodward, the World Cup-winning coach of 2003, called T-CUP – "thinking clearly under pressure". There were more mistakes than the England coaches would have liked but the players were able to regroup and re-establish the necessary foundations. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the display of Toby Flood. Before he went off, limping, he had run through the entire repertoire of his game, running, kicking, passing and tackling. Flood knows the regard England's coaches have for Jonny Wilkinson but he should take heart from an all-round game of such quality.
So what does Wilkinson do? Emerge to kick a long-range penalty and re-affirm his status as a French nemesis. This is what Martin Johnson wants – the transition from one player to another, from one style to another, which will receive a far sterner examination in New Zealand in September.
Wilkinson recovered the world points-scoring record from the All Black Dan Carter – not that that would have been on his mind. More to the point was the way England attacked their opponents in the second half. Their technique improved, they did not rush the pass, they were positive.
When he trundled on in the final quarter, Steve Thompson joined the record holders too. His 64th appearance equalled the games played by Brian Moore, England's most-capped hooker (though one of Thompson's was played on the flank). Thompson appreciates France; a French surgeon saw that the hooker's neck could be repaired when he thought his playing days were over.
Some doubted England could offer a display of such maturity, given their inexperience – 380 caps in the starting XV next to 625. This year their enthusiasm and desire has served them well, compensating for their lack of knowledge. That may come back to haunt them in the World Cup, six months down the line, but for now it is all anyone could wish.
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