Wilkinson's great competitive honour is England's refuge and an enduring glory

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The Independent Online

England, the world champions who have been attempting to re-make themselves sufficiently to give up their title with a modicum of pride, remain alive, and if it is too much to say they are vibrant, and still less that they have a serious chance of reincarnation as a major force in this sixth World Cup, there was something to take from this damp French night.

It was the gathering in of a certain stubborn determination not to confirm the worst fears of their critics.

If they still look ripe for the kind of humiliation inflicted on them by the Springboks across the city here two weeks ago, if they frankly do not look any longer like a front-rank rugby nation, they proclaimed their refusal to trail away as the team who made the memory of their opponents from a little dot in the South Pacific.

The Tongans beat Samoa and gave a scare to a weakened South Africa. But England would not be the scalp to find a place in the legends of distant islands.

One man made sure that this would be so. It was Jonny Wilkinson. He is, by common consent, no longer a candidate for the best player in the rugby universe ... if, indeed, he was ever that. But what he remains, and it is an enduring glory of modern English sport, is a player of endless determination – and competitive honour.

Who knows what might have happened to England, a team so low on all their old belief, if Wilkinson had not again shown that he had the determination to do everything within his power to turn around a game?

These powers are, of course, not sublime. They do not well out of him. They are hard and basic and are simply produced in a rhythm of determination that has become quite unprecedented. Two World Cups, one won, one saved against growing evidence that England are a team playing from a faded memory. It was something from which Wilkinson could draw immense pride as he carried his battered but still astonishingly resilient body into the respite of half-time.

Paul Sackey was a fully fledged hero by now with two more tries, which this time took some of the fire and the optimism out of the Tongans as similar strikes had their Pacific neighbours Samoa in Nantes last week, but it was Wilkinson who was again the man who had drawn a line behind which he insisted his team-mates could not retreat.

He did it after the Tongans had produced the kind of fury which England had been anticipating with some thinly veiled trepidation all week and which, when it came, could scarcely have been more intimidating had the islanders been allowed to press on with their plan to paint their heads green.

Certainly, it was running, driving rugby guaranteed to work on the uncertainties which had been growing within England since the tournament started. Epi Taione swept beyond the tackle of Wilkinson and when he fed Suka Hufanga only Olly Barkley had a chance of stopping Tonga's first try. The England man got hold of Hufanga but was carried, with the ball, over the line.

It was the kind of physical authority which can batter the confidence of any opposition and, though the England pack had plainly come to sell their places in the quarter-finals at only maximum cost, the challenge was one which had to be met with a special determination – and wit.

Wilkinson supplied it with the instinct of an alley fighter when he saw Sackey lurking unguarded on the right and sent a running penalty kick into the arms of the wing. A champion, however desperate the circumstances, can never allow an opponent to believe that he has an edge and when Sackey finally wrestled the ball down there was a stirring sense that England would indeed survive to the serious phase of the tournament, that if their title was to be surrendered, and this must still be the overwhelming expectation, it would be done in superior company – that of the double world champions Australia in Marseilles next weekend.

From that point of Wilkinson initiative you could see Tongan self-believe begin to drain. Yes, they could run with ferocious commitment and, until the onset of serious doubt in the second half, with hands infinitely safer than those displayed by Samoa last weekend. But England had been carried through their crisis, and there was no prize for identifying, once again, the source of their salvation.

Heaven knows, it is a fragile existence for England. The Tongans wilted in a way that the Australians would never countenance, and beyond them there is the looming menace of the All Blacks and the South Africans and, who knows, a renascent French.

These are inhabitants of another league but, thanks to Jonny Wilkinson, it is still too soon to say, another planet.

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