There is life without Jonny

Autumn Internationals: Exit Twickenham's talisman but the points roll on

By James Corrigan
Sunday 24 November 2002 01:00

So Rudolf the Red-Faced Springbok was sent packing and the only things that fell quicker than records yesterday were the heads of those once-proud South Africans. What will happen to Rudolf Straeuli, the South African coach, when he returns home is anyone's guess, but don't think too hard as one thing they do not countenance on the Highveld is a loser.

The fact that the referee, Paddy O'Brien, reduced what had looked like being if not the most expansive then at least a fully committed encounter to a no-contest with his sending-off of Jannes Labuschagne in the 22nd minute will only act as part of the excuse for the 50-points mayhem wrought by the Red Rose Army.

After a month of achievements against the game's so-called giants, English rugby fans need no longer look at their compass with utter perplexity. For once, the north deserves to be at the top of the dial and while it would be foolish, and indeed highly dangerous, to speculate that the south are following the arrow in a downwards motion, the worth of these three back-to-back victories should not be underestimated.

The experts have told us that these autumn internationals are warm-ups to next year's World Cup but if Clive Woodward's team can somehow transfer the hot form they have shown, then the competition may still be caught cold. Firmly in their favour is Jonny Wilkinson, who proved that even when things aren't going his way his influence can be decisive. Even his trusty left boot was not involved initially yesterday, indeed the ease with which he sent a penalty attempt wide in the 21st minute suggested that these were not the skills of a metronome but a garden gnome. But Jonny rarely stays quiet for long and in the next minute, however unwittingly, the outside half was involved in what turned out to be a match-winning tackle.

Labuschagne's hit on the outside-half as he launched a clearance kick was so late it could almost be described as posthumous. This was not the first and it would not be the last piece of special attention that the 23-year-old received from the South Africans. "They clearly singled Jonny out, he was being targeted from very early on," Woodward said later.

Eventually up got Wilkinson to take his part in what would now be an inevitable English cruise. In the opening quarter Wilkinson had made two uncharacteristic mistakes, first dropping a straightforward ball when he tried to pass to Mike Tindall before he had even received the pass from Matt Dawson. Then came his kick in the 21st minute, the first he had missed in over 140 minutes of international rugby. But Wilkinson was not the deserved winner of England's man of the series award for their golden November for nothing and in the 24th minute his inch-perfect kick over the by now tattered Springbok defence fell into Ben Cohen's arms, and he seemed to have got it down for England's second try.

That was before the intervention of O'Brien, who went to his video referee, Jim Fleming, for judgement on what had seemed to many at first glance to be a good touchdown. O'Brien was proved right to be doubtful. No try, said Fleming, and Wilkinson was left to foray again. Twickenham did not have to wait long for the next burst of Wilkinson's talent. On the half-hour mark he ran the ball down the line, finding Tindall with a defence-splitting pass, but when that centre failed him he merely collected the ball again and switched inside for his other centre, Will Greenwood, to barge over.

At half-time Wilkinson had raised his international points tally to 577, and with the 14-man opposition there for the gift-wrapped taking, the England No 10 looked set to join the 600 club. But soon after the interval, Butch James finished off Wilkinson's afternoon. A bone-crunching tackle by Butch on the Sundance Kid that was almost as late as Labuschagne's earlier transgression sent Wilkinson groundwards and one of the shoulders that carries most of England's burden was injured.

No matter, when Woodward loses one ball-player he can just look to his bench where another will be fit and willing. On ran Austin Healey, the Leicester utility back who winces at that description, enjoying a rare outing of more than half an hour in England colours. Healey revels in the pivotal role and, although he has neither Wilkinson's vision nor his composure, he has a cross kick that most dedicated No 10s would give their right boot for.

Three times he sent the ball flying over the Springbok defence and three times they were left catching air as the attackers ran in. That an England hand could not grab hold of Healey's first two bombs was down as much to the Springboks choosing the game plan of damage maximisation rather than the damage limitation that their depleted numbers would have favoured.

Richard Hill did grab hold of one before the replacement scrum-half, Andy Gomarsall, split the posts from the touchline with his conversion. Minutes later Tim Stimpson did likewise, emulating not only Gomarsall but Dawson, who had converted one from the opposite touchline just before his departure. But then, it is the beauty of Woodward's England that even without Wilkinson the points, from wherever, just keep on rolling.

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