Saturday, February 03, 2007

Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeere's Jonny!

It's easy to rhapsodise - so let's. After three years in limbo, Wilko's return was the stuff that dreams are made on. Intelligent in his distribution, gritty in the tackle, almost flawless with the boot, his performance cemented the fledgling optimism of Ashton's reign into a display of solidarity and aggression. Although not called upon to deliver anything like sublime inspiration in a series of backs moves that were more efficient than incisive, the calm application which typified the returning fly-half's contribution instilled confidence in those around him, and enabled the consistent leverage required to open Scotland up.

Even the TMO was overcome by a bout of sentimentality, awarding Wilkinson his try despite his foot landing a good yard in touch before his splayed arm managed to pop the ball down. A gift from the Gods indeed. Scotland did not deserve that, but they earned scant credit besides, only notching two tries through slack English play. Such errors will need to be eradicated before the visit to Croke Park; but with Italy next up for the Jonny treatment an opportunity to hone some of the finer elements of the game should present itself.

Another seventy minutes will be the order of the day for Wilkinson, who was so untested by the Scottish that he almost had to take it upon himself to pick up the obligatory battle scars. Caught across the face by an elbow when throwing himself ball-ward early on, Wilkinson's bloodied fizzog served as a totem for how much has been thrown at him in recent times, and how well he has endured it all. Even a few crunching tackles, including clattering his face into a Scottish forward - a move which elicited criticism of his technique from Brian Moore - could not dim his influence, which shone throughout.

Without being required to stretch the Scots greatly, either with his kicking or passing game, there were still opportunities to exercise the synapses of a mind that lives and breathes rugby. His lightening take and offload, shipping the ball laterally along the line even as his opponent's arms closed around him, created the space for Jason Robinson's first try, and it was also a sharp decision to take an immediate three points from the drop goal after Scotland had briefly rallied. Some of England's passing through the midfield was ponderous, and Wilkinson will need to marshall Tindall and Andy Farrell with greater urgency, particularly against Ireland, but gametime should buy him the opportunity to reach full speed. Already, he now appears integral to the World Cup defence.

Brian Ashton can afford himself a wee dram and a conceited smile after watching such a consummate performance from the man whose unfortunate selection as England captain by Andy Robinson came to haunt the coach who was never able to see his chosen leader make the field of play. Retaining the World Cup will take an act of supreme conjuring; but already Ashton appears to have a touch of the Houdinis about him.

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