"It was not so much about finding the best thing, as finding the least damaging thing." Someone phone the Samaritans, fast. These people need help.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Wilkinson needs more help than most. His performance here had precious little in common with the rugby he played in the autumn of 2002, when he was the most effective outside-half in the sport and everything seemed possible; instead, it was eerily reminiscent of one of his exercises in public self-analysis: confused, contradictory and ultimately calamitous. It is becoming ever clearer that if the recent World Cup finalists are to "move their game on", to use a phrase so frequently trotted out by their head coach, Brian Ashton, they will have to move Wilkinson off the team sheet.
After 34 minutes of nothing much – Scotland, labouring under the weight of their own limitations, had offered even less than England in attack – Wilkinson kicked a short-range penalty to beat the world points record set by Neil Jenkins of Wales. The prospect of arriving at this milestone had not excited him before the game, and he was even less thrilled after it. But he's made it there, and good luck to him. What better way to hand over the torch to a Shane Geraghty or a Ryan Lamb? Or even a Danny Cipriani, always assuming he can afford time away from ticket distribution commitments so onerous that he's sometimes still at it after midnight.
This was a wonderful game for the brilliant young Wasps playmaker to have missed, although he would rather have missed it through a different conspiracy of circumstances. The wind blew, the rain fell, the Scots put their shoulders to the wheel with great bravery and commitment, winning so many of the collisions that the ghosts of John Jeffrey, David Leslie and the Calder brothers seemed to be out there scrapping, sleeves up and socks down. It is by no means certain that Cipriani would have made more sense of it than anyone else.
Iain Balshaw, dropped for Cipriani until the latter was photographed emerging from a Mayfair nightspot at an hour that stretched Ashton's patience beyond breaking point, coped as well as most; indeed, his beautifully weighted kick down the right at the end of the first quarter was the only piece of inspiration witnessed all afternoon. Somehow, it seemed appropriate in a game so cursed that the attack should have ended with Rory Lamont sliding head first into Balshaw's knee – an accident that put the Scotland wing in hospital.
Lesley Vainikolo, on the other hand, did not even begin to cope, and if his services are retained for the game with Ireland this coming weekend it will be a bad joke. The former rugby league wing from Tonga, via New Zealand, did nothing to justify his selection in the first place – he had played only a handful of matches since switching codes and his fast-track promotion was based purely on size, reputation and a simplistic assumption that he would do for England at 15-a-side what he did for Bradford Bulls in the 13-man game. Here, that folly was exposed with a vengeance.
Ashton rarely singles out individuals for criticism, but Vainikolo's error count drove him to distraction. "I don't expect to see mistakes like that again," he said. The coach went on to bemoan the aimlessness of his side's kicking game before accepting that Scotland had outplayed England at back row and half-back. Alasdair Strokosch, Ally Hogg and Simon Taylor always looked a stronger loose-forward unit than that fielded by their opponents, and the Scots had a clear advantage at scrum-half in the shape of Mike Blair, the outstanding player on the field. With Wilkinson having such a rough time of it, the home side needed only a split decision in the tight exchanges. Thanks to the aggressive Nathan Hines, they managed it.
They were helped in this by England's rank indiscipline at the maul, an area in which Jonathan Kaplan hurt them badly with his whistle. The South African referee is quite pedantic enough without being encouraged by the likes of Andrew Sheridan and Simon Shaw, who are hardly difficult to spot, yet England's most potent forwards were also the least streetwise. As Ashton said: "We talked about the fact that poor discipline would eventually cost us a game, and it's happened. The penalty count was unacceptable. It gave them points, gave them territory and cost us our own continuity. Add in the individual mistakes, and I'd have started to believe in miracles if we'd won."
When it was suggested that another failure in Celtic lands, now barren territory for England, must have shaken him to the core, Ashton said: "What I've just seen frustrates me rather than shakes me. If it shook me, I wouldn't be here. I'd say thank you very much and good night." Is he in the mood to make wholesale changes for the Ireland game, then? "I'm in the mood for reflection. Long and deep reflection."
His opposite number, Frank Hadden, is not out of the woods either, despite this agreeable turn of events. On the morning of the match, it was confidently reported in some quarters that his employers were lining up the World Cup-winning South African coach Jake White as a replacement – something that did not go unremarked, in an oblique kind of way. "I was worried that we'd start the game in a tentative frame of mind, which would not have been surprising, given the welter of criticism," Hadden said. "It's not easy to retain confidence with that level of negativity swirling around."
It was Chris Paterson, bizarrely left out of the starting line-up at the beginning of the tournament but back in the goal-kicking swing of things now, who offered some much-needed tender loving care. "We've all been supporters at one time or another and we all have our opinions," he said, "but it's hard to tell why some people react so venomously. I think Frank deserves some backing, and I think he'll get it."
There are those who put Hadden and Ashton at level-pegging in the vulnerability stakes and, although it is fatuous to suggest that the latter will come under serious pressure before the autumn, things will get warmer for him as he considers the Wilkinson question. The celebrated outside-half was right about one thing on Saturday, however. Asked to what he extent he deplored the schoolboy errors committed by him and his kind, he said: "I wouldn't call them schoolboy errors." It was a fair comment, if only because the mistakes England made were of a pre-school variety. This week's training should be held in a crèche.
Scotland: H Southwell (Edinburgh); R Lamont (Sale), S Webster (Edinburgh), G Morrison (Glasgow), N Walker (Ospreys); C Paterson (Gloucester), M Blair (capt); A Jacobsen, R Ford (all Edinburgh), E Murray (Northampton), N Hines (Perpignan), S MacLeod (Llanelli Scarlets), A Strokosch (Gloucester), A Hogg (Edinburgh), S Taylor (Stade Français). Replacements: D Parks (Glasgow) for Lamont, 26; F Thomson (Glasgow) for Ford, 32; J White (Sale) for MacLeod, 63; A Dickinson (Gloucester) for Jacobsen, 65; C Smith (Edinburgh) for Murray, 70; K Brown (Glasgow) for Hogg, 73; R Lawson (Gloucester) for Blair, 78.
England: I Balshaw (Gloucester); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon, T Flood (both Newcastle), L Vainikolo (Gloucester); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), R Wigglesworth (Sale); A Sheridan (Sale), L Mears (Bath), P Vickery (capt), S Shaw (both Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath), T Croft (Leicester), M Lipman (Bath), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: M Tait (Newcastle) for Flood, 68; G Chuter (Leicester) for Mears, 68; B Kay (Leicester) for Shaw, 68; C Hodgson (Sale) for Wilkinson, 71; M Stevens (Bath) for Vickery, 71; L Narraway (Gloucester) for Lipman, 76.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).
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