Matador idol is ready to flourish the cloak again

Close-up, in your face and very personal, but Wilkinson learns from French debacle
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The Independent Online

They are not long, the days of wine and roses. Particularly red roses, it seems. No sooner had England been fêted as the best in the world for demolishing Ireland, than along came France to prune the Grand Slam dream. Jonny Wilkinson, hailed as a peer among fly-halves against the Irish, was cut down in the process, secateured by Serge Betsen, a bête noire if ever there was one.

Wilkinson was due back in the bosom of his family in Surrey last night, having headed south with his club Newcastle for yesterday's match at Harlequins. Only his father and elder brother – twin mentors in the still-young Wilkinson's rugby life – may truly know his feelings on the French fall from grace. But doting maiden aunts and teenaged groupies should look away now, because Wilkinson is an obstinate bugger. Those baby-faced features, so disconsolate when he finished the Paris match substituted and stumbling on an injured calf, will be set in their usual mask of determination when Wales come to Twickenham on Saturday.

"We let ourselves down and we've got to prove ourselves again," Wilkinson said. "The Ireland game turned out the way it did, and the French game was a different story. My job on the pitch is very much involved in team direction, and that's a big part of the end result. You make decisions and there are consequences from them. We didn't execute our skills or our game plan as we needed to, and as a direct comparison between the two games, that was the difference. But the team will be picked for Wales, and the good thing is every one is fit and healthy, and ready to put it right."

So the Slam has been dunked and though you won't find Wilkinson crying into his tea, he admits he could have done more to change the game and save his side. "The substitution was a team call, and I felt someone coming on could have done a good job. I hurt my calf early in the game and as it went on, it got worse and worse. I didn't feel I could give as much to the team as I wanted to. The disappointment sets in very quickly, and that's what you saw. It's knowing that there's no going back, that everything that went into preparing for the game has gone."

What with Henry Paul on for Mike Tindall before the first half was out, and Wilkinson reduced to a watching brief before the end, England's back line went from super-smooth against the Irish to something of a shambles. The irony of Paul's premature ushering on to the international stage was that the rugby league recruit missed his solitary shot at goal, supposedly the reason for his presence in the first place.

Now Matt Dawson and Charlie Hodgson are restored to fitness, and to the squad from which the team to face Wales will be named on Tuesday. Paul has been shipped off to Hong Kong to have a go at sevens.

As Wilkinson hinted, England's hand, though denied the iron fist of the suspended Martin Johnson, has thus been strengthened. "I enjoyed working with Henry," he said. "You don't pick your time to make a debut, he took the pressure well, and I think he's going to be awesome in sevens."

The French, apparently, treated themselves to a gourmet dinner the Sunday before meeting England. Betsen played like a man whose pre-match meal consisted of broken bottles and stir-fried wood screws. A creaking English back row, Kyran Bracken's mixed service from scrum-half, and Wilkinson's troublesome leg all helped give Betsen the green light.

Wilkinson had been warned what to expect by his former Newcastle team-mate, Stuart Legg, now with Betsen at Biarritz. The verdict? "Hmm, interesting," he said, like Loyd Grossman poking a fork into some foie gras. "I did see a lot of him in the game. Very close up. France used him well, not only in pressuring me, but with the ball, too. He showed he's international class."

Betsen's first tackle on Wilkinson was late but unpunished. Three more times in the first half, the bull speared the matador. Still, on a couple of occasions, Wilkinson shook the red cloak and, with a feint, got the ball away from the tackle. Moreover, his touch-finders were of high quality, both his goal-kicks went over, his passing was assured and only once in the second half did Betsen find the target again. Yet it came with a crack of doom that left a lasting impression as Wilkinson hesitated between pass, run and kick.

The Welsh – whichever XV they may choose – are unlikely to repeat the treatment. England have won a record 14 successive matches at Twickenham (making France's eight wins out of 15 at Stade de France look rather thin) and Lewis Moody, like Dawson and Hodgson, is fit again to bolster Clive Woodward's back row options. Neil Back is likely to reassume the captaincy from Johnson, having had the job for the wins over Australia and Romania in November.

Yet Woodward's call for his forwards to "smash the French" went unheeded in Paris. In the midfield, Will Greenwood and Mike Tindall dropped the ball in tight corners, and when Greenwood did twice cut free, the support players fatally cluttered the short side. Most worryingly, the driving maul – brutal weapon of the England pack of the early Nineties – generated next to no momentum.

And if there is one statistic that haunts England, it is their Six Nations record since the last time the Grand Slam was secured in 1995. The much talked about serial offence of dropping a single match a season is, in fact, a seven-year itch. France prevailed in 1996, 1997 and 1998. Then Wales, Scotland and Ireland, in a Celtic conspiracy between 1999 and 2001. Now, France again. No wonder the Slam has such currency – it is based on its rarity. When Woodward says "we've lost a rugby game; it happens", he is pointing to the red rose's overall improvement in recent times.

The age of video analysis means that even the most resourceful team is prone to revealing the secrets of their success. An Englishman, David Ellis, claimed to have worked Woodward's side out in his capacity as France's defensive coach. But World Cups are won and lost on going through the business end of the tournament unbeaten.

Woodward's future – Wales in the short term, the 2003 World Cup on the horizon – appears more than ever to rest on having a full hand to deal from, and a poker-faced Jonny Wilkinson fit to play the right cards at the right time.