James Lawton: Haskell gets Johnson out of the dungeon – but not yet out of jail

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The Independent Online

Sometimes when you get off the floor it is important not to analyse too deeply the style, or the circumstances, of the achievement. Wisely, England's Martin Johnson seemed utterly attuned to this reality. He was happy enough to be not just off the deck but out of the dungeon.

Where he and his team go now after beating a far more gifted Welsh team, who were betrayed quite shatteringly by a mind-blowing moment of madness by one of their best players, second-rower Alun Wyn Jones – it certainly zapped the one belonging to his coach Warren Gatland – will be determined partly by their own reaction to a distinctly flattering 30-17 victory.

England's matinee hero James Haskell was naturally most upbeat after scoring two tries and generally looking like a reliable source of inspiration when his team's attacking impetus lagged, as it continued to do in a disconcertingly high number of potentially vital moments. Haskell declared, "We've got the first result on the board and this will be our foundation."

As Johnson implied in his subdued reaction to a result which might have been categorised as fantasy back in the depths of autumn, the trouble is that it is a basis for the future still featuring more sand than rock.

Meanwhile, though, no one can dispute Johnson has the right to latch on to some positives.

At scrum-half Danny Care supplied plenty of impressive hustling in the absence of the front-line Welshmen Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel and, in front of him, captain Steve Borthwick clinically dismantled the Welsh line-out. England's back row of Haskell, Lewis Moody and the returning Nick Easter were also due the highest rank of battle ribbons, not least for refusing to be cowed by the presence of Martyn Williams, who stood head and shoulders above anyone else in the field.

Also true is that Mathew Tait showed moments of class which deepened the mystery of why he so promptly disappeared after provoking England's best moment in the 2007 World Cup final, when he was questionably denied a potentially match-turning try.

Unfortunately, not much else displayed by an England team marking the 100th anniversary of Twickenham in Edwardian outfits could be even vaguely classed as vintage. Perhaps the return of Riki Flutey at No 12, where Toby Flood failed to make the necessary impact, will give England's midfield a touch more construction – and penetration – but for the moment the possibility of Danny Cipriani going into exile at the other end of the world seems to carry a message of greater symbolic weight than the achievements so far of the Wasps prodigal son.

No doubt, and notwithstanding some disastrously timed injuries, it has to be said that Cipriani's progress has been a grave disappointment. You might also describe it as a small, destructive essay on the ravages the celebrity culture can inflict on notable but half-formed talent, not in sport, but any area of performance-driven life.

The fact is that Cipriani has promised the phenomenon of rich and exciting creative talent, a possibility that invention and flair might have a pivotal part to play in the revival of former World Cup champions, who not only lost their crown but also any clue about how they might negotiate the future.

In the reigning attacking impasse – Wales were comfortably resisting England's manfully but almost entirely artlessly applied pressure until the red mist descended on Wyn Jones and he tripped a Dylan Hartley who, it was apparent to most everybody else, wasn't going anywhere much – Twickenham was once again required to celebrate the enduring virtues of Jonny Wilkinson.

With a dead ball at his feet, Wilkinson showed us again that he is immaculate. But when it is in his hands the weapon is turned into a scourge of his and England's best hopes. Even though his opposite number Stephen Jones was far from his best, we had still another demonstration of Wilkinson's inability to shape a coherent attacking strategy.

Heading towards the 2011 World Cup it is plainly Johnson's central problem, though if this match was any guide to northern hemisphere aspirations, the whole debate has become almost completely irrelevant to the outcome of the big tournament.

There was a time not so long ago when Wales might have made rather more of a case for themselves but here they consigned themselves to the slipstream of Ireland and France. This was a deeply infuriating Welsh performance, even with two-thirds of their front row and their two best scrum-halves missing. It was most bizarrely captured by the misadventure of Wyn Jones, in whose absence England scored 17 points without reply, and whose return to the field immediately signalled the Welsh ability to turn around the game.

If Gatland can draw any comfort at all – which given his countenance and biting condemnation is not one of the sporting life's more immediate prospects – it is that he does still possess attacking riches beyond the dreams of Johnson.

James Hook's brilliantly taken try, the one that seemed so likely to have set up Wales' fourth straight victory over England, certainly underlined the validity of his ambition to play at No 10. Everyone knows about the quality of the incumbent Jones and this remained evident even after he stretched too far with the intercepted pass that finally switched off the Welsh lights, but with Hook there has long been the sense of another dimension.

It is one in line with the highest tradition of Welsh rugby, the one that speaks of men like Cliff Morgan, Barry John, Phil Bennett and Jonathan Davies. That there were some flashes of attacking poise from the Welsh to remind you of such lineage no doubt only compounded the rage of Gatland.

The calamity of his defeat was that it made a mockery even of his reduced resources.

For Johnson the worry in his victory is that it may just have expressed, at least for some considerable time, the limits of any possible achievement. Still, at least he could celebrate getting out of the dungeon.

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