Nick Townsend: Jonny Vegas Show

Ashton's big gamble pays off in spectacular fashion - and there is much more to follow
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was perhaps appropriate that, in the week when the nation prepared to go gambling crazy, Brian Ashton should stake his reputation by throwing all his chips on a special No 10, Jonny Wilkinson, and watching the wheel of fortune spin England's way.

Except that Ashton won't see it that way. For him it was never a question of this being the Comeback Kid or the Kamikaze Kid, as the debate had progressed all week, given Wilko's 45 minutes play in three months and his failure to report for duty for 30 Tests. In that time England had won only 40 per cent of their games and plunged to seventh in the world rankings.

Even for Wilkinson's advocates, there was still a scintilla of doubt. Would the old enemy be bedevilled by him or break him? To Ashton's satisfaction, the answer tended towards the former.

Of course, the Newcastle man will have more influence on a game. And he will be irritated with himself for missing two conversions, though he more than atoned for that with a cleverly engineered try, the product of his agile rugby brain, even though it should have been ruled out by the video referee. Ashton will know there is much, much more to come, and if any England player deserved the gods to smile on him yesterday it was Wilkinson.

Ashton apparently counselled his fellow coaches, England's elite rugby director Rob Andrew and, most crucially, Wilkinson himself before unleashing the No 10. By the second half, as the blood-spattered fly-half dispatched his umpteenth kick over the Scottish bar and scored that dubious try, Wilkinson, linking with the admirable scrum-half Harry Ellis, had provided a suitable riposte to those who had greeted his inclusion in the starting line-up with such sentiments as "lunacy".

After the tribulations of the autumn series, those performances accompanied by the crescendo of jeers, the "Sweet Chariots" were in evidence once more. There was always that slight doubt about Wilkinson's match fitness, but he played with restraint and lasted until the 74th minute, when 82,000 rose to him. Ashton actually made his way down from his seat to congratulate him. Given Wilkinson's regard in English sporting folklore, this was less of a return and more of a resurrection.

"It means a huge amount to be here today, and remaining injury-free," he said. "I hope I have repaid those people who have taken a gamble on me."

The evidence of what was to ensue was there early on. After 10 minutes 50 seconds, he wiped the blood from his split lip and struck the penalty which represented his first international points since his match-winning drop goal against Australia in 2003.

It was followed by a drop goal delivered almost nonchalantly though, as we all know, it was actually reward for continued dedication to his art.

For periods of the first half, as England yielded their early advantage, they appeared as rusty as an old hulk. Not surprisingly, considering that they were a team that had only recently been introduced. Fortunately, Wilkinson's kicking continued to be impeccable and he instilled momentum in points-building as well as providing the inspiration to all around him. He also contributed to Jason Robinson's try, his first since coming out of international retirement, though, horror of horrors, Wilkinson missed the conversion from an acute angle.

Ashton's predecessor, Andy Robinson, was at Twickenham yesterday, and as he surveyed this team which differed so greatly in personnel from that which lost to South Africa in November he reflected on what might have been had he been able to reinstate Wilkinson and install the rugby league convert Andy Farrell at inside centre, together with the left-winger Robinson emerging from retirement. But such are the vagaries of sport.

Maybe Ashton would have subconsciously paid some regard to the relative quality of the opposition. Scotland's wins at Twickenham have been spread frugally across the years. Possibly, he believed that this would be won in the mind, even before the team stepped on to the pitch. And to an extent that would have been correct. But his principal concern would have been that the World Cup was only 10 matches distant. There was a job to be started, and quickly.

Certainly, Ashton, who was Wilkinson's "minder" in out-of-camp periods during Robinson's tenure, could be certain that the No 10 possessed the mental armoury to withstand the arrows of pressure.

At the end of his book My World, written after the World Cup, Wilkinson reflected on what that triumph meant in the context of his whole career. "I've got too much unfinished business in rugby," he wrote. Yesterday, belatedly, he took up where he had left off.

Comments