James Lawton in Paris: Wilkinson's past glories overshadowed by brightness of French rugby revolution

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is quite hard to believe that just a few months ago it was possible to come here with one of those gut-deep hunches that not only loosens a man's tongue in the bar but also propels him to the betting window. It was that England would beat France in the semi-final of the World Cup.

That's right, the England who had been thrashed 36-0 by South Africa in the same Stade de France a few weeks earlier, who had just squeaked through against Australians so unfamiliar in their lack of confidence they should have had their identities checked, were going to ambush the French – the French who had come home in triumph after beating New Zealand, almost everybody's idea of the best team in the world.

When it happened, when the French collapsed amid a great hiss of steaming hubris and the English contemplated their chances in a second straight final, it wasn't so difficult to understand. The French had hit a rare peak against the All Blacks but they were still operating out of character. The English, by the sharpest of comparisons, had retreated into their own rugby nature as though it was a fortress.

For 80 minutes it was. But it is different now. The walls have been breached not just by the world champions South Africa but also Wales. It means that two weeks after an eminently forgettable performance in Rome, here tonight we still await a new England.

This is as surprising as it is discouraging now that rugby's World Cup has assumed such cyclical importance. If you don't win it, or suggest you have enough key troops to do so in four years' time, the obligation is to reinvent yourself.

This is what the French are doing under their new coach Marc Lièvremont – and why it is so difficult to conjure the optimism that flared so persuasively on behalf of England last autumn.

Lièvremont is remaking, with youth and a surge of belief, his nation's rugby in its own image. He has dragged away the chains imposed by his predecessor Bernard Laporte and, unlike apparently England's Brian Ashton, he is accepting that it can be a perilous business. But it is one you have to engage if you want to make progress.

Ashton's coaching credentials are excellent. By instinct he is a rugby man of touch and feel – but such qualities have still to surface in his beleaguered role as England coach.

Nor will they, you have to believe, until he does what his rival tonight has done. Until he embraces the future. The trouble, of course, is that before you do this you first have to dismantle the past, which would be a whole lot easier if this didn't involve telling Jonny Wilkinson that England may just need to move in other, more adventurous directions.

The prevailing wisdom is that Wilkinson has restored everything he means to England with a sharply improved individual performance against Italy. His place in tonight's game was confirmed amid such a tide of old pro acclamation that to demur is to invite a charge of something close to high treason.

Yet here is the veteran captain of England, Phil Vickery, reviewing what he plainly sees as a crisis of performance and, specifically, of attacking originality: "I'm not going to Paris for tackling practice, we don't expect to win the game by defending. We have to show them what we can do, run our own plays, explore the weaknesses that we believe they have. We have to come back home knowing we have done that – that was the frustrating thing for the coaches after the Italy game. We talked about what we had planned to do and then why we hadn't done it."

This seems to suggest a certain lack of inspiration and for anyone really intent on reading between the lines, some of Wilkinson's reflections this week were intriguing, most notably when he said: "You realise after playing the game professionally for 11 years that what's gone is gone. You wake up on any day and it's a blank canvas. You can bring stuff from the past but it holds no real water."

What no one can dispute is that many of the old England certainties have gone, and that these include a considerable amount of Wilkinson's old aura. He remains the most admirable of rugby players. His courageous willingness to put his body on the line remains a genuine phenomenon. But is he now really the man to carry England forward to a new age and new dimensions? There is a backlog of evidence to dispute such a claim – and surely not all of it was squared away by a degree of resurrection against the brave but limited Italians.

Listening to Vickery was to detect at least a hint of the belief that England's failure is not solely to do with execution; that the team's most pressing need is an injection of imagination. Also, perhaps, a willingness to take the risks that are implicit in making, like France, a new team based on the springs of youth.

England's rugby cognoscenti are virtually unanimous in saying that no one represents this eternally recurring asset more than 20-year-old Danny Cipriani. In Rome two weeks ago he conceded a try when he came late into the game and had a kick charged down.

If there is anything like a hunch in town, though, it is that sooner rather than later he will make this seem like the smallest blemish. You just wish he had the chance to start it all against young and resurgent France.

Two London heroes genuinely worthy of carrying our Olympic torch

It is amusing, in a macabre sort of way, to imagine the panic that gripped the office of London's mayor when it was revealed that he had signed a letter inviting Linford Christie to carry the Olympic torch through the streets of the 2012 host city.

We are now told that Ken Livingstone merely attached his signature to the decision of unnamed officials, which raises two questions. Does Livingstone read his own letters, and if so, does he know or care about the sporting life of his city and his nation? There were indications that he did not, when he gushingly embraced America's gridiron in pursuit of an NFL game for Wembley, and these suspicions, whatever the circumstances, have been confirmed quite spectacularly.

Livingstone is surely obliged to root out the allegedly guilty officials and make sure that in future they have no input into the Olympics, which we are told, not least by Livingstone, are going to be a glory for both London and the rest of the country. This possibility is not enhanced by the invitation to represent the Olympic ideal to a man who, after drug suspensions, is persona non grata in any Olympic installation.

While he is about this important business, he might also consider penning a few more invitations to recipients rather more relevant and deserving than the already well honoured newscaster Sir Trevor McDonald and the somewhat obscure actress Amara Khan.

Two who spring to mind are George Cohen, a native of Kensington, and Jimmy Greaves, born in East Ham. World Cup winner Cohen had to wait 34 years before receiving an MBE, the lowest rank of honour. Greaves, with whom the nation agonised when he was omitted from that Wembley final, still waits for some official acknowledgement that he was one of the greatest of English sportsmen.

It is quite possible that these sons of London might politely decline to dig out their old running shoes but then, again, they might be tickled to know that the mayor of their city knows of their existence.

Butcher a friend in need for Gazza

If there is any comfort in the continuing sadness of Paul Gascoigne and his latest cry for help it may be in the quality of the response of some old footballers who know at least a little of his torment.

The prize surely goes to the fine professional and former captain of England, Terry Butcher, who said: "It is not now about what we tried and failed to do, but how we can help him. He is a victim of his own emptiness. He could not fill the void we all have to fill when our time to retire from the game comes. None of us finds it easy but for him it was doubly difficult. I know he had something missing from his life after football."

It included most of those "celebrity friends" who flocked around Gazza when he was the star, when he made the game look so absurdly easy – so much more so, indeed, than the demands of real life. He doesn't need such old "pals" now. He needs the compassion and understanding of men like Terry Butcher. Men wise enough to know there would be a day when the glory passed away.

Comments