Wilkinson gives England cause for real concern

Wasps 43 Newcastle 29
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The Independent Online

There is no point beating about the bush. If Jonny Wilkinson is 100 per cent fit in both mind and body - and there were times at the Causeway Stadium yesterday when he looked anything but - he is a long way out of form. High Wycombe? This was more like High Noon, with the new England captain left lying face down in the dust. Wilkinson required two lengthy periods of treatment, one of them for an injury that looked suspiciously of the neck and shoulder variety, and the iron defence on which he has constructed a good proportion of his unprecedented reputation appeared riddled with metal fatigue.

Andy Robinson, the acting head coach of England and a white-hot favourite to secure the job on a permanent basis later this week, insists the Newcastle outside-half is as good as new following the operation he underwent in the spring. In which case, steer well clear of the Robinson family's car boot sales. Wilkinson is producing his usual pearls with the boot, and his attacking footwork is far trickier than anything he attempted during the 2003 World Cup. But the physicality of his game - the very thing that set him apart from the great unwashed - has been diluted by years of pain and months of enforced inactivity.

Wilkinson talked afterwards of a "dead arm" that he had initially suffered some weeks previously, and which re-expired when it connected with Joe Worlsey's bullet head at a ruck towards the end of the third quarter.

He went on to say that the neck problems that forced him into corrective surgery had been resolved. "I get the occasional tingle," he admitted, "but at least I can move my neck around without suffering shooting pains. As far as my rugby is concerned, I'm fine. Honestly."

Entirely predictably, the Newcastle elders joined him in playing the reassurance card. Steve Black, the Falcons' conditioning coach, expressed the view that Wilkinson "enjoys these little cuddles" as the second bout of treatment continued in mid-pitch, while Rob Andrew, the director of rugby, dismissed any suggestion that his protégé might be caught in a downward spiral.

"He took a heavy blow on the right shoulder, certainly," Andrew conceded. "But people tend to take a whack or two at this level of rugby. We definitely have problems in terms of our team defence and there are major issues that need sorting, but I don't think you can lay everything at Jonny's door. The work he is doing in training astonishes us all, and he is slowly translating that work to the match situation. He needs game time, basically, and there are another four Premiership and Heineken Cup fixtures ahead of us before the first of this season's internationals. By that time, he'll be spot on."

Mmmm. Wilkinson butchered a straightforward scoring pass to Tom May in the opening couple of minutes of this match, thereby undermining the effect of his own 50-metre break. He spilled ball in contact - not once, but half a dozen times - and when Ayoola Erinle, an absolute bull of a Wasps midfielder, ran at his right shoulder deep in the final quarter, there was barely an attempt at a meaningful tackle. Wilkinson stayed on to the bitter end, but Newcastle would have lost nothing by introducing the gifted David Walder at his expense well before Erinle scored the home side's fifth and final try.

Even had Wilkinson been in his peerless pomp, he would have struggled to deny Wasps here. The Londoners reacted to a soft opening try from Epi Taione by creating clear-cut five-pointers through Richard Birkett, Tom Voyce and the magnificent Worsley, who disputed the man-of-the-match plaudits with his piratical back-row partner, Johnny O'Connor. Newcastle were handy enough when it came to the attacking phases, and they managed to keep themselves at the races with scores from Jamie Noon and Colin Charvis. But Wasps re-established their superiority with two further tries between the 63rd and 67th minutes before Michael Stephenson secured a bonus point for the Tynesiders.

It will be fascinating to see where Robinson plays Worsley in the autumn Tests, for play him he must. The big Londoner rather fancies the No 8 position, and despite the fact that a bloke called Dallaglio performs the role at Wasps, the England selectors might do themselves a favour by moving Worsley from the blind-side flank and giving him a place in the decision-making spine of the team. The try he bagged yesterday was a gimme, but his approach work for Voyce's score in the 27th minute smacked of serious quality and reinforced his claim - a claim almost amounting to a birthright, given Dallaglio's mentorship - to the white shirt he craves most passionately.

Wasps: Tries Birkett, Voyce, Worsley, Van Gisbergen, Erinle; Conversions Thrower 2, King; Penalties Thrower 2, King; Drop goal King. Newcastle: Tries Taione, Noon, Charvis, Stephenson; Conversions Wilkinson 3; Penalty Wilkinson.

Wasps: M van Gisbergen; E Thrower, P Richards, R Hoadley (A Erinle, 49), T Voyce; A King (J Brooks, 28), M Dawson (H Biljon, 46); H Nwume (A McKenzie, 62), P Greening (T Leota, 62), T Payne, J Hart, R Birkett, J Worsley (M Lock, 70), L Dallaglio (capt; J Haskell, 70), J O'Connor.

Newcastle: M Burke; T May (M Tait, 38), J Noon, E Taione, M Stephenson; J Wilkinson (capt), H Charlton; M Ward (J Isaacson, 40), A Long, M Hurter (Ward, 63), L Gross (C Hamilton, 65), S Grimes, M McCarthy (E Williamson, 74), S Sititi, C Charvis.

Referee: D Rose (Warwickshire).