The Nick Townsend column: Robinson needs a miracle, nothing can save England

Legend limping off was saddest sight of shambolic night but the fact Samoa are licking their lips sums up national side's plight
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As he pulled up as lame as a stricken Classic favourite, there was a collective intake of breath within the Stade de France. As for the England full-back himself, with no playing career ahead of him, just a skyline of possibilities for the man who is acknowledged bleakly on these Rugby World Cup team-sheets as Jason Robinson (unattached), the moment must have felt horribly like the game was putting a gun to his head, dispatching him prematurely to oblivion. The rousing roll of applause from the near-80,000-strong crowd will have yieldedhim scant consolation.

Immediately afterwards, Robinson's team-mate Josh Lewsey remained optimistic, claiming that the England full-back, who always planned to retire after this World Cup, had never experienced a pulled hamstring before in a 16-year-career in league and union. Robinson himself couldn't immediately confirm the severity of his second-half injury. Yet everything about the manner in which he brought a typically scintillating dash to a voluntary, shuddering halt, anguish written across his blood-stained features, said: pulled hamstring.

The reality is, if we ever witness the man – who introduced transfusions of energy, guile and courage to an anaemic England – turn out for his country again, then the national coach, Brian Ashton, will be the recipient of a miracle. And by God he needs one, or several, despite some misjudged defiance after his team had been flattened36-0 by the Springboks.

It is a measure of Robinson's regard in the world game that, as South Africa's coach, Jake White, recalled wryly: "The whole thing stopped to see if he was OK. I was hoping my players would get on top of him and get that ball out. But nobody seemed to be sure whether they should have taken the ball or let him get up again." He added: "I thought he was the most impressive England player today. He's been brought back from retirement, and he was sensational. He really kept us guessingthe whole first half. He'll be a massive loss for England."

Curiously, it was after the departure of Robinson, the player whose try in the 2003 World Cup final was one of 27 in 48 appearances for his country, that England displayed something of the attacking verve that had hitherto been beyond them, albeit to no avail. It apparently persuaded Ashton that his men had offered rather more than the majority of fans had witnessed. One suspects it was spoken with the mindset of his team and next Saturday against Samoa in mind, with the Webb Ellis Cup already in the process of being grappled fiercely from England's hands.

As 10cc once inimitably reminded us of the delights of the French capital, "One night in Paris is like a year in any other place". For Ashton's team, one devastating Friday night in Paris must have lasted an eternity.

In the week that the Tartan Army had marched onwards with its football team at the Parc des Princes, Ashton's team were as fragile as the Terracotta Army in the face of a warrior-like South Africa. With the Springbok scrum-half Fourie du Preez virtually omnipotent, England hardly landed a glove on their opponents until the end of the second half.

One assumed that White preferred diplomacy to triumph-alism, in the certain knowledge that there will be tougher trials ahead for his side, when he declared: "Everyone knew that England were close to finding one massive game, and I was just terrified that this would be it. Tonight was difficult for us because I wasn't sure what was going to happen.

"There was so much talk. Was [Jonny] Wilkinson going to play? Was [Olly] Barkley? Then [Andy] Farrell was going to play 10, and then [Mike] Catt was going to play 10.

"If you lose Barkley and Wilkinson, and you've got to play two new guys at 10, it's difficult for any country. I think, to be fair, they're going to have to play much better than they did today if they're going to beat Samoa. Our players felt that Samoa were up for it against us – and they will be against England, too."

Significantly, White had evidently anticipated a more physical menace from within the England ranks. "Maybe we expectedso much more because we reallygot smashed last week [by Samoa]," he said. "The one area of concern from England's point of view is that they can't really play with lots of width against Samoa. They're going to have to play direct to their forwards, and use their kicking fly-half. That means they'll have to start as they did tonight and kick a lot better in terms of tactical kicking. From Brian Ashton's point of view, he'll be hoping Barkley or Wilkinson are available."

Yet while Ashton defied attempts to draw him into an excoriation of his entire team, justified though it may have been, his counterpart, who had profited from an association with Sir Clive Woodward, placed England's decline into perspective.

White added: "I started [as Springboks coach] in 2004, and we were probably lower than England are now.

"It happens. People must expect it if you don't get it right. If you don't build for the future, it can be taken away from you. It's much more difficult to maintain it than to get it.

"That's the secret. That's the same thing in anything, sport or business. You have to hold on to it when it's working and then build on that."

As Woodward would no doubt attest, that is what England failed so manifestly to do after his departure. Hence, as 10cc concluded: "That's the way the croissant crumbles."

F1's response to Spygate makes Tevez affair look expertly handled

How we chided and lampooned football's mandarins over their handling of the Carlos Tevez affair, and the imposition of a £5 million fine on West Ham United. There must be some relief within the Premier League this week that, whatever their risible response to the London club's misdeeds, motor racing is with them, standing accused in the same court of public opinion. The Premier League were anxious that the Hammers faithful should not suffer for the sins of the board; so it just would not do to have the two leading drivers, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, glamour boys both, removed from the FormulaOne world championship race.

Therefore the response of motorsport's administrators to the dark deeds allegedly perpetrated by McLaren – subterfuge apparently conducted through the conduit of 288 text messages and 35 telephone calls between Ferrari's now-dismissed British mechanic, Nigel Stepney, and McLaren's suspended chief designer, Mike Coughlan, though seemingly without the knowledge of the team principal, Ron Dennis – amounts to this: let's just multiply West Ham's penalty by 10. Big money by most of our standards, but not to McLaren, whose turnover approaches £500m a year. Again there are parallels with the West Ham saga. So, the circus continues: Ferrari's sense of grievance is mollified, McLaren are still likely to be there celebrating a world champion driver at the end of the season.

It could even be Alonso, who was reportedly irked by his perception that he was no longer regarded as being the big cheese at McLaren, and apparently offered evidence against his own team, so his days with the team are presumably numbered.

Meanwhile, young Hamilton emerges clean from the whole business, which was the principal intention of any judgement; to ensure the continuation of that golden career which has so captivated the public, and never mind that both drivers have quite possibly benefited from the illegal passing of information.

The sport's ringmaster, Bernie Ecclestone, claims that McLaren and their drivers came close to being disqualified from this year's championship, and next year's, "but a few of us battled on and campaigned for thefine instead".

Yes, of course. Tough, but fair. It wouldn't do to damage the sport's most valuable properties, even if it means tarnishing its reputation. Just as football showed them how.

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