James Lawton: Cipriani would add style to Jonno spirit

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Finally, you could smell it – a pungent whiff of "the Jonno factor". Perhaps not enough of it to justify even a bar or two of "Sweet Chariot", and still less "Jerusalem", but if it was true, as the big man in a red suit and carrying a large rubber leek declared, "It's very nice being Welsh", it surely had to be allowed that it was on this occasion not such a disaster to be English.

After the turgid futility of their effort against a catastrophically selected Italy a week earlier, Martin Johnson's team looked like, well, a team, or at least the scrappy beginnings of one.

You had a clear sense of this on Jonno's post-match face. It broke into irritation when he was invited to rejoice in the status of a gallant loser.

He does gallant losing about as well a a cornered wolverine. Winning beasts are all the same. They do not learn to lose gracefully because what is their point if they do not win?

England may have had scarcely a fraction of the cleverness and coherence of a Welsh unit one clear notch below their best, and minus the sublime catalyst Shane Williams, and their inherent indiscipline may still have flared like a teenager's spots, but their manager could put his hand to his competitive heart when claiming that his men might just have won.

Two more yellow cards, on top of the six collected against Italy and New Zealand, still spoke of the desperate need for much more work on this fundamental problem before the visit to Croke Park in two weeks, but there was no doubt Johnson could hand out a few well-earned battle ribbons among those who ran Europe's best team so unexpectedly close.

The one given to Joe Worsley might have been inscribed with the old Spanish Civil War battle cry, No Pasaran – "they shall not pass". Worsley's epic defence, signalled in earth-moving early collisions with Wales' nominated crash-baller Andy Powell and the big, hammering centre Jamie Roberts, was rightly separated from all else in a match that was never less than absorbing and at times touched the level of a classic slugfest.

Wales, plainly, still belong in a different class to the former world champions and runners-up, but Johnson's supreme comfort is that more than a little performance, along with a try count of two to one, has at last been put on the board.

Where does he go from here? After Andy Goode's latest confirmation that whatever he gives you – in this match it was a cunning kick through for Paul Sackey's try, a psychologically uplifting dropped goal and then a visit to the sin bin which turned his manager's face, again, into a mask of grief – it will not be a surplus of creativity or consistency. Johnson, surely, has to reconsider at fly-half.

Goode may be a passable response to extreme need. But he is not the future and if the scorned Danny Cipriani's mind is not concentrated now, it never will be.

Cipriani would have provided England with considerably more invention at those points when they needed to build on Welsh unease, especially in the last quarter when Toby Flood had replaced Goode without seriously testing the resolve of the Grand Slam champions finally to shut down the surprising vigour of their challengers.

In such circumstances it was inevitable that Worsley should stand so far above the rest of his team-mates. But then it was also a caution against any excess of optimism about immediate prospects for the simple reason that if England's supreme performer, by a vast distance, was a superbly dedicated destroyer, the pick of Wales, from the perennially dangerous Tom Shanklin to the unshakably composed Stephen Jones and Lee Byrne and Ryan Jones, all carried the threat of match-transforming brilliance from the first minute to the last.

Here, despite the tries, the shortfall in English expectations, especially at the still-born climax, said everything that anyone needed to know about a decline unchecked by the appearance in the 2007 World Cup final.

The glimmerings of Johnson's leadership visible here will mean nothing if they are not quickly augmented by hints of genuine growth. We are not talking about mere green shoots of spring, but rather a sense that the old competitive rigour, announced for most of this match, will soon be accompanied by fresh belief in the possibility of new players, new talent.

Wales, even on one of their less inspired days, abounded with such possibilities, not least when 20-year-old Leigh Halfpenny slammed over a long penalty and scuttled in for a try after an effortlessly created overlap. Paul Sackey and Delon Armitage did make impressive marks with their tries, but neither of them oozed the authority of young men convinced about the certainties of the future.

It is here, you have to believe, where the Cipriani conundrum is so pivotal to England's immediate prospects. When you put away the tiresome publicity and self-advertisements, and the undoubted fact that under fire he has betrayed at least some of the hopes of his most fervent admirers, he remains the one England player with that blinding capacity to make the game seem so natural a challenge. England had virtues on Saturday but they did not include the presence of any aspiring Merlins. When the Welsh, no doubt cursing some of their lost opportunities, settled on their final, match-setting strategy they were able to do so without the fear of a shot in the dark, a flash of befuddling invention.

Cipriani might just have disrupted some of that Welsh assurance. It is also true he might have kicked down the throat of Martyn Williams under his own posts. However, if Johnson could forgive so many of those who produced doomsday rugby against Italy, giving Cipriani his chance of redemption is maybe not such a reckless idea.

The Jonno factor, we have been reminded, can work wonders on the competitive spirit. But it can only make you play as well as nature allows.

Comments