James Lawton: Wilkinson's wobble conclusive proof the game is up

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The Independent Online

Of all people, it was Jonny Wilkinson, the hero of all English rugby heroes, who defined most starkly how far his team had regressed, how pressing is the need for an injection of wit, some sense that the nation who contested the last two World Cup finals remember how to play the game at the highest level.

On one of the few occasions when the line of the sometimes bizarrely dysfunctional All Blacks was even vaguely threatened, Wilkinson attempted a drop goal. The appalling fact was that the lesser of his crimes was to miss.

It was a truly terrible moment, as though his mind had been turned into mush by the sheer scale of his difficulties.

In that moment of philosophical bankruptcy, Wilko announced that England were indeed lost, that their circuit was broken, their confidence in their powers of creativity at possibly an all-time low.

Afterwards Wilkinson's coach and former fellow hero, Martin Johnson, insisted that his men were making solid progress, even if it wasn't so obvious on the field, which made you wonder quite where else we might profitably get out the old Bunsen burner. At such times the squeamish are obliged to swallow and look away because it is impossible to believe that this wasn't another day when the English game, as currently organised, appeared to be up.

Of course there is no dishonour in losing to New Zealand, even when evidence of their brilliance is available only in staccato bursts, but we are not talking about honour or application or good intentions. We are discussing the need for a small signal or two that there might be a future in which a hint of flair, even rough practicality and self-belief, might just illuminate what at the moment can only be seen as defiant drudgery.

Once again Lewis Moody displayed the most intense of the resistance, this time augmented by the still snarling Lion Simon Shaw, and around them was plenty of evidence of players manfully attempting to cope with opposition that, for all its inconsistency, might still have scored four or five tries – especially if the brilliant run of full-back Mils Muliaina had not left a foot trailing over the line as he attempted a touchdown that might easily have triggered a rampage.

There was no question about England's willingness to fight, only the extreme paucity of their means.

New Zealand coach Graham Henry was generous – "England always provide strong opposition" – and he was at his most sarcastic when a French journalist gently suggested that this might not have been the most convincing overture for the tour climax in France. "The French must be licking their lips," Henry smiled, grimly.

Johnson couldn't manage any kind of smile. It was more an injured grimace when he said that last week England won, today they had lost, and people seemed happier when they had lost.

That kind of petulance is more or less inevitable after a period of sustained criticism, but it hardly encourages the belief that Johnson and his coaching unit have come fully to terms with the reality that in their current endeavours they have as much hope of critical bouquets as Thierry Henry might a foaming Guinness and a hearty round of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" in a Dublin watering hole.

England are as dry as old parchment and if they were dogged and brave against the All Blacks they did not deliver a single note of optimism that a moment of breakthrough might be at hand. Most basically, they never looked likely to score a try.

Wilko's abortive kick was not just a bad decision, it was the revelation of a state of mind – one that requires not furious self-justifications from within the coaching department, but a ray of insight.

Former coach Brian Ashton, whose refusal to celebrate the plight of those who so shamelessly administered the knife to his back is beginning to verge on the saintly, did, however, attack on these pages what may be the central problem. He made his worry, that players are stripped of spontaneity and the ability to make decisions, a general one, but its application to England's crisis could scarcely have been more relevant.

On a day when the marvellously liquid talent of Dan Carter was revealed only in small, if breathtaking, flashpoints of genius, and marked formally by his becoming New Zealand's greatest points-scorer, and Richie McCaw occasionally rejoined the rest of the human race by making the odd faulty judgement, the desperate truth was that England can hardly ever have looked more robotic.

The idea that they displayed signs of progress is outlandish. There was an increase in resolution not to be ravaged by superior ability, perhaps, but progress in what else? Not in coherence, a sense of purpose or a workable plan to upset the opposition. And not, most crucially, in any clue that, with the next World Cup just two years away, England have any vague suspicion about who might create a vital spark, the kind that gives a team belief in its own powers.

Mathew Tait, who came so close to delivering a stunning, potentially match-turning try in the last World Cup final, was given a walk-on part, a comment presumably on a perceived lack of sinewy crash-bang potential, and Danny Cipriani is reported to be close to a return with Wasps.

Those who believe that Cipriani might yet provide inspiration, perhaps if he could detach himself for a year or two from an apparently obsessive relish for the celebrity life, suspect that he might return at full-back, a problem position of a severity Mark Cueto may have eased against the All Blacks, but scarcely resolved. Yet if something is to be rescued from the misadventures of Cipriani, surely it has to be imposed at the creative heart of a team. This idea can only have been strengthened by the fact that perhaps, as never before, Wilkinson (left) looked much more about the past than the future.

Whatever else he isn't, Cipriani is by some distance the most imaginative player in English rugby. He has a lovely feint, he can do that which is at the heart of Carter's brilliance. He can undermine an entire opposing team in one moment of fleeting inspiration. Yes, he is mistake-prone, a fact which has done so much to retard progress that, you have to believe, would have been made much more of a priority in somewhere like, well, New Zealand.

That conclusion was only strengthened by the sight of 20-year-old Zac Guildford cheerfully taking his place in the front row of the haka in only his second international appearance. The flying kid moved thrillingly at times but was in obvious need of experience. However, by the time he reaches Cipriani's age he will no doubt have a war canoe full of it. For English rugby this was just one dismal fact – and a shocking reproach.