Wilkinson looks within himself for winning edge of old

England's 2003 hero goes into today's quarter-final looking to wrest back his pre-eminence from a host of young challengers. He talks to Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

Berrick Barnes looks about 14 but performs like a player twice his age, partly because George Gregan, the venerable Wallaby scrum-half, can draw on lessons learnt over the course of almost 140 international matches to guide his countryman along the broad highways, and through the dark alleyways, of Test rugby, and partly because the youngster's own rich talent has made a man of him earlier than anyone expected. For the record, he is 21.

Lionel Beauxis, the Frenchman, can kick the ball miles and carries the hopes and dreams of the host nation on his unusually broad shoulders. He will be 22 in a couple of weeks' time. And then there is Juan Martin Hernandez, "le Maradona du rugby" – a little older than the others at 25, but the least experienced of the three when it comes to playing the outside-half role at the top end of this most demanding of team sports. If the Argentine continues in his current vein, he could be the first No 10 to achieve greatness in the time it takes most people to read a match programme.

This is some triumvirate – a holy trinity in double digits. And where, pray, is Saint Jonny in the grand scheme of things? He's around and about, but not quite up there. He has had his injury problems – well, there's a surprise – and while there is a rhythm of sorts to his goal-kicking, it is some way short of metronomic. Yet at the crucial point of England's campaign to date, early in the final quarter of the match with Samoa in Nantes, it was Jonathan Peter Wilkinson who broke the islanders by dropping a goal and then landing a penalty from inside his own half. At those moments, there was just a whiff of 2003 about him.

Four years ago, Frédéric Michalak was the young hotshot, gunslinging his way around Australia with an exaggerated shrug, a confident smile and barely a care in the world. Then came semi-final night, and the rain, and Wilkinson. Over the course of an extraordinary 80 minutes, Michalak disappeared in a wet fog of indecision while the most English of Englishmen rediscovered the bearings he had lost against Wales the previous week and brought his team home. It is far from impossible that something similar will happen here this afternoon, when he looks Barnes in the eye and starts asking a question or two.

As a boy – and he is not much more than a boy now – the Queenslander idolised Wilkinson. He watched him play, he devoured his books. This was news to the Newcastle stand-off, who described himself as "surprised and humbled" that a player as good as Barnes should admit to such a thing before embarking on a long and detailed assessment of his opposite number.

"In Berrick, we see the kind of professionalism that has become the Wallaby norm," he said. "There is a huge amount of expectation on this Australian side, and to ask someone of his age and experience to step into Stephen Larkham's shoes... well, it's a big task, isn't it? But he seems to have a complete understanding of his game. It took me a long time to find myself in international rugby; for quite a while, I struggled to stamp authority on a game. Berrick has all the freshness of youth, but he knows who he is. He has already become himself."

It was an illuminating comment. Wilkinson has never been able to resist the lure of cod psychology and seldom spurns an opportunity to dabble in the babble, but his assessment of Barnes had an air of authenticity about it. Barnes, Beauxis and Hernandez are the advance guard of a new battalion of outside-halves marching towards the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. Some of those following them are English: Toby Flood, Shane Geraghty, Danny Cipriani, Ryan Lamb. Is it too fanciful to suggest that if the champions' defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy ends here this afternoon, Wilkinson's career as a World Cup player will end with it?

At 28 and counting, Wilkinson is aware of youth's approach. "I look at people like Toby coming into the England squad, people like Mathew Tait, and I feel as I imagine Mike Catt must have felt when I first appeared in the international set-up." Does he handle the threat to his supremacy in the same way Catt handled it? "Mike seemed very relaxed about it, able to take it all in and get on with the job. I'd like to see myself in the same light, but I think I take things more personally and analyse things more deeply." In other words, the shrug of a Michalak and the acceptance of a Catt are alien to him. He probably wishes he cared less, but knows it is not an option.

Few sportsmen have spent quite so long peering at themselves, examining themselves down to the last cell and atom. Wilkinson believes the hard road to be the only road worth following, and he travels it endlessly. "I'm definitely a different person to the one who played in the 2003 World Cup, but I'm not different in the way I imagined I'd be," he said. "I suppose it's because I've had to do so much of my learning off the field, because of all the injuries. I feel I have a greater awareness now of what these big occasions mean, of what I want them to mean, and I've changed in the way I deal with the pressure. I now treat pressure as something I don't understand and cannot control – something so confusing that there's no point buying into it. When I finish a match, I simply go back to my home or my hotel room, look in the mirror and ask myself if my performance was a fair reflection of me as a rugby player, if I did everything possible to ensure the match was won. In the end, that's all anyone can do."

Since last week's victory over Tonga, a game in which Wilkinson was sorely tested in defence and missed three shots at the sticks, that pressure has risen in multiples of plenty. Can he cope with it as he once did? There's the rub. The most dependable marksman in the world game between 1999 and 2003 is not the most dependable in 2007. He is not even close. Wilkinson is operating at something less than 70 per cent – considerably short of Olly Barkley's 83.3 per cent and a very far cry from the 100 per cent records of Chris Paterson and Dan Parks, the two dead-eye Scots. These are deep waters, both for the outside-half and his countrymen.

"Kicking is an interesting subject," said Wilkinson, without the slightest hint of irony. (His reputation for thinking of little else is well established, to say the least). "The Scots have been fantastic – they've worked incredibly hard and their success rate speaks massively for the effort they've put in. But it's become a side issue with me now, in the sense that I don't worry about the ones I miss in the way I used to worry. You can miss eight in a row, but the ninth could be the one that puts you two scores ahead in the last minute of a game. The only thing I concentrate on is attacking the next kick. Sometimes it happens for you, sometimes it doesn't. In this tournament, some have gone wide that should have gone through, while others have gone through that shouldn't have done anything of the sort. Whatever the outcome, you start again on Monday morning in the belief that if you practise as hard as you can, you always have a chance of being that bit better come the weekend."

Of all weekends, this is the one that counts. "It's crunch time," Wilkinson agreed. "We've reached the point where it's about reacting minute by minute, about making the decisions that matter and working like hell. If you can do that, you're right in there fighting. After that, it's a matter of hoping you're the ones who take the opportunities that arise. That's it, really. There's nothing else."

Australia fear Wilkinson, as well they might. John Connolly, the Wallabies' head coach, has spent the week talking of the "Wilkinson factor" and emphasising the stand-off's importance to the English cause. "They have many of the ingredients that go towards making a strong international side: a very strong set of tight forwards and some pace out wide are two of them. A third is Wilkinson. Here's a bloke who can really hurt you. If he's allowed to dictate the pace of a game, the nature of a game, he's very difficult to overcome. He means an awful lot to England. Since their victory in 2003, that's been underlined time and again. They miss him badly when he's not around."

Connolly thought he had a master strategist of his own, albeit of a very different variety, in Larkham – the principal architect of Australia's marvellous semi-final victory over the All Blacks four years ago and a player so profoundly experienced that Wilkinson barely gets within 40 caps of his tally. Larkham is injured, though. It is Barnes, a thrice-capped rookie, who will have to carry the load this afternoon. Wilkinson is too polite and too respectful a character to play the Big Bad Wolf card in public, but in private he is licking his lips. Michalak all over again? How England would love it to be so.