James Lawton: Woodward needs to solve problem of Wilkinson paradox

England may not be able to win Rugby World Cup with their present playmaker - but they may also not be able to succeed without him
Click to follow
The Independent Online

After Samoa, a doctor might have resorted to the old fall back position of a tricky diagnosis. He might have said England's difficulties in this Rugby World Cup were something or nothing. A fleeting malfunction of the system, maybe.

He might have recommended a few days at the seaside. But after Wales in Brisbane on Sunday night, he could say no such thing - at least not without the risk of being hauled before the General Medical Council.

What happened to England at the Suncorp Stadium, as the Welsh swarmed into their psyche, was something indeed. It was, until the veteran Mike Catt came on and took the troubled young Jonny Wilkinson by the hand, perilously close to a nervous breakdown.

Wilkinson, as widely feared before the game, was at the heart of the problem, which you may think is an astonishing thing to say when when you consider his massive contribution to the eventual victory over Wales - 23 points out of 28. But this is the paradox - not the point.

The appalling dilemma for the coach, Clive Woodward, as he watches this Sunday's semi-final opponents, France, preen themselves around the stunningly smooth emergence of 20-year-old Frédéric Michalak in the fly-half position, is that he fears, perhaps even knows now, that he cannot win with Wilkinson as his playmaker. But then can he win without him? Wilkinson's kicking against Wales was simply a phenomenal act of will. If ever the field of concentration he creates around his painfully elaborate goal-kicking ritual was to be broken it was surely then.

His world was falling around him as the Welsh poured at the English line. Wilkinson's coach tacitly admitted that the job of turning away the crisis had slipped beyond the 24-year-old who had come into the tournament hailed as the world's best player. But if that assessment of his wider talent was being increasingly made to look like a parody of judgement, somehow the young man's nerve held when it came to putting the ball through the posts.

Catt took hold of the game, but, when you thought about it, his achievement was to give Wilkinson the platform to win it. Between them, they got the job done, but they were two men occupying one position.

The French, made dreamy and - naturally - at least a little smug by the exquisite nature of their victory over Ireland point out that young Michalak is the full item. The French get two for the price of one. They get a gunfighter's cool and an artillery man's precision. They also get instinct, a competitive imagination which radiates through a team that has added a new discipline to the old élan.

So what does Woodward do? On the flight down here yesterday, one former England international, a veteran of significant World Cup action, shook his head and said, "The fact is England are in a mess - and Wilkinson is at the centre of it. He is too good a kicker to leave out, but he showed again, under serious pressure, that he cannot run the team. It boils down to basic pragmatism. Woodward has to play both Wilkinson and Catt, and drop one of the centres, Will Greenwood or Mike Tindall. It's tough but rugby coaches, like everybody else, don't live in a perfect world."

For a little while Woodward was no doubt tempted to believe he did. He had the World Cup favourites, a team who had learned to compete consistently with the southern hemisphere. But there is a certain mystery to the making of champions, a final step, and just as England's football team failed to make it in their World Cup in Japan last year, when all the superlatives fell away and we were left with a team all played out, that possibility is eating into the confidence of the rugby men.

Woodward, however shaken by the inroads made by the Welsh - who even after their heroics against the All Blacks a a week earlier were still expected to fold quite quickly under English pressure - was still true to his combative style. He told a French writer that France had done brilliantly, but they hadn't yet met England. In the end, he suggested, this issue might not be about a purity of talent but an intensity of the entrails. He seemed to be saying that England, if necessary, might just outgut the French. All form guides here would say that is probably the only way.

Most worrying in all of this is possible evidence of an English disease which has Wilkinson as it latest symptom, just as his new friend and commercial ally David Beckham was in the Far East. What we may have is a tendency to build our heroes too quickly, mistake evidence of certain skills for greatness rather than the mere potential to have an impact on the world stage at its highest level. We get ahead of ourselves and take our heroes with us, and when they do not deliver on cue, we get upset with them more than we do with ourselves.

You cannot anticipate greatness. You have to wait to see if it will unfold. This is the way it has been with the French and Michalak. He came here a possibility rather than a sure thing, and his effect has been all the greater for that.

Meanwhile, Wilkinson is bedevilled by a challenge that, so far, has been profoundly beyond him. He came to Australia with an obligation to prove himself the world's greatest player. So many who should have known better told him that, and now they should take a close look at the result of their work. His goal-kicking apart, it is quite haunting to see.

Viduka shows Gregan's lack of passion

Every day here we are getting an update on the saga of "Socceroo" Mark Viduka at Leeds United. His failures to show up on time for team talks and training have been noted religiously, and with every report there is the reminder that he earns Aus$152,000 (£66,000) a week. This, it is dryly noted, would buy quite a few "coldies".

It makes Viduka an appalling salesman for a game which, of course, already runs far behind cricket, Aussie Rules, both rugby codes and tennis in the regard of the world's most committed sporting nation.

If Viduka has any power of reflection, he might ponder one reason why the current World Cup Wallabies are also struggling for respect, let alone adulation. Critical public reaction to very disappointing performance is coloured by the unwisest statement ever made by the captain of a national team here.

Coming into the tournament, George Gregan declared that passion was no longer a vital ingredient of sporting success. Far more important was technical accomplishment. Viduka should ponder that while Gregan merely said it, he is living it. He should forget about a hero's return.

Welsh teach Scots lesson in pride

Until last Sunday night, when Welsh passion raged again under a full moon, the most emotional departure of the World Cup was made by the also-rans of Romania and Namibia, who won the hearts of the normally rugby-shy island of Tasmania. A sell-out crowd of locals warmly saluted the principle of seeing a job out to the end, however difficult the going.

Scotland, for some obscure reason known only to themselves at the end of a tournament in which they had relentlessly demeaned their own great heritage, lingered on the field long after their defeat by Australia. Perhaps they saw a losing margin of 17 points as some kind of redemption. But the Welsh, everyone agreed, had something to celebrate.

It was that they had brought to the tournament, against two of the favourites, New Zealand and England, a determination to produce the best of themselves. It was something, said the teary, over-achieving captain Colin Charvis, that might just signal the rebirth of a great rugby nation.

The World Cup is, until its knock-out stages, too long and too unbalanced, and so the Welsh contribution was precious indeed. It was the thrilling element of surprise. It was young men rediscovering an old native talent and making new dreams. In this it was the best that sport can be.