It all comes down to the splinter of ice in the brain. Jonny Wilkinson, a player so dangerous that even the hard-heads of southern-hemisphere rugby think he may win the World Cup for England, produced one of his least convincing performances at international level yet still managed to emerge from an absolute brute of a Test match smelling of red roses.
His tactical kicking was wayward and frequently pointless; his passing was less than sympathetic; his option-taking was flawed. Yet the chances of his missing a shot at the posts were more remote than the planet Pluto. The man is not cool. He is deep-frozen.
While the white-shirted cherub from Newcastle was hitting the spot with seven successful kicks from seven, two of them drop goals deep in the final quarter that edged the game away from a seriously competitive Springbok side, his opposite number was scratching his head at the injustice of it all. Louis Koen is not the most electrifying outside-half in the tournament - in terms of volts, he is the equivalent of a hotel shaver-point - but for the first hour of the contest, he played Wilkinson off the park. What he did not do was kick his goals. Like his rival, he had seven chances. Unlike his rival, he fluffed five of them.
And when the match reached its crisis - England 12-6 up with 15 minutes left, the Springbok pack all over them like a rash - it was he who cracked, and cracked spectacularly. Joost van der Westhuizen's pass from a defensive ruck was hardly the best; he fired it like a bullet, and it hit Koen smack in the midriff at high speed, forcing him into a crouch that cost him his balance. Lewis Moody, less than impressive in possession of the ball, proved far more adept without it, and his blocking of Koen's rushed clearance kick gave Will Greenwood the decisive try on a plate.
Four minutes later, Koen missed a straightforward tackle on Ben Cohen, allowing the Northampton wing to establish the position from which Wilkinson dropped the first of his goals. Two minutes after that, he was summoned from the field and replaced by Derick Hougaard. He viewed the last rites from a bench on the touchline, his shoulders hunched, his face as blank as a virgin sheet of A4. At the end, he could not bring himself to shake hands with the England team. He headed straight for the dressing room, his chin somewhere near his bootlaces.
Wilkinson has made his own descents into personal purgatory. The difference? He not only survives, but thrives. Three months ago, soaked to the skin by a storm blowing in off the Wellington shoreline and hounded to the ends of the earth by the brilliant New Zealand flanker Richie McCaw, he crumbled in every department except the one that really mattered - the one in which he has forged his reputation, and which will earn him a mention whenever and wherever this uniquely demanding sport is discussed. His goal-kicking that night was nothing short of astonishing - way beyond anything his rival Carlos Spencer could manage. As a result, England recorded their first victory on All Black soil in more than 30 years.
No mere coach could even begin to explain how Wilkinson is able to perform so unforgiving a task with such unerring mastery when the rest of his game has turned to sludge. Rob Andrew, one of Wilkinson's predecessors as England's outside-half and principal marksman, knows more than virtually anyone alive about the mental processes involved, and as Newcastle's director of rugby knows more than most about the man in question. Yet not even he can make sense of it. Wilkinson is something else. There is no-one remotely like him in the world game, and for that reason England are feared by the other big-hitters in this competition.
His first shot at goal was more or less a gimme - a good 40 metres out, but head-on to the sticks. But then, Wilkinson makes every shot look like a gimme. His second penalty, nine minutes shy of the interval, was an awkward cuss of kick, especially for a left-footer. He slotted it "top pocket" and "middle of the middle" - the England squad's terms for perfection. And when the Boks transgressed twice more in the minutes after half-time, their hearts sank; in both instances, Wilkinson was so ridiculously certain to punish them that they might as well have spared him the trouble and headed straight for the restart.
There is no guarantee that poor Koen will feature again in this tournament. By and large his kicks were more testing than Wilkinson's, but by choosing to gamble at the very limit of his range and failing to earn his side a satisfactory return, he left himself open to the criticism of the forbidding giant who coaches the Boks, their former No 8 Rudi Straeuli. "I think it was a mistake for him to try the longer kicks," Straeuli said afterwards. Had he spoken to Koen about those decisions? "I have spoken to the group already," he replied, darkly. "I will address the individuals later."
For Koen, then, oblivion beckons; the younger Hougaard is considered the more potential-rich player. For Wilkinson, glory beckons. He may not be playing well, but it doesn't seem to matter. And that is the mark of a special talent.
- More about:
- Ben And Jerry's
- Mark Tucker
- Newcastle Upon Tyne
- Sauces And Dressings
- The Brain