Richard Bath: Stilted Jonny facing boot
JONNY Wilkinson won two caps yesterday: his 68th and quite possibly his last. The English talisman may have passed the milestone of 1,000 points in Test rugby, yet this performance was down there with the disastrous Wales loss. It was emphatically not his finest hour.
The stand-off, once the best No.10 in the world, mirrored his side's play: stilted, one-dimensional, lacking in ambition and error prone. His game was encapsulated in the opening seconds of the second half when he fielded the kick-off. With plenty of time to clear his lines, he instead hesitated and then plunged into heavy traffic and, when the Scotland forwards piled in, referee Jonathan Kaplan's hand went up for holding on in the tackle.
England, already 9-3 down at half-time, had conceded a penalty under the posts within a minute of the restart.
Wilkinson's erratic play wasn't the cause of England's malaise, but it was certainly a highly visible symptom. His kicking for goal may still be lethal but he offered little outside and acted as a magnet for the Scotland back row. Indeed, for much of the first half he was sufficiently out of sorts that he delegated the position of first receiver to his Newcastle teammate Toby Flood.
He was finally put out of his misery in the 70th minute when Brian Ashton yielded to the inevitable and, chasing the game, hauled Wilkinson off. It was a decision that received an ironic cheer from the crowd: it signified England's demise. How Ashton must have rued his rash decision to discipline Danny Cipriani. He has received much flak for leaving the talented young fly-half behind, and he bristled when it was mentioned after the match.
If that ill-advised decision by Ashton cost his side dearly, so too could one of Hadden's more curious decisions. It may seem churlish to pick out Dan Parks as Scotland's achilles heel after an epic win that has probably saved Hadden's job, but this was a win achieved despite the Aussie's best efforts rather than because of them.
For the first 20 minutes of the game, Scotland had looked as if they would be able to take full advantage of the England inside backs' hesitancy. For that first quarter it was a game of two halves: Chris Paterson the running fly-half versus Wilkinson, the game controller. Field position versus have-a-go endeavour. Paterson, feeling his way back into the fly-half position and admitting he feels increasingly comfortable wearing the No.10 jersey, was part of a Scottish back division which functioned far nearer the gainline, gave the opposing backline far more pause for thought than during any other game this season. Yet once again Paterson's stint at stand-off was prematurely interrupted.
The glimpse of Paterson-led fluency in Scotland's back division was all too fleeting and ended abruptly after 20 minutes as the men in blue were establishing some real momentum. That was the point at which there was a collective oh-my-god moment. It happened when the golf buggy chugged out to remove Rory Lamont from the pitch after his head had an unfortunate and high-speed collision with Iain Balshaw's knee. As it became clear that the wing could no longer continue, there was a mass shuffling of programmes as 67,500 people looked to see who the replacement would be. The group intake of air was like a yoga session as Parks moved to the sidelines. Whether Parks has the pace to play fly-half at Test level is open to question, whether he has the pace to deputise on the wing against Paul Sackey isn't.
Scotland had no option but to move Paterson out to the wing and bring Parks into the fly-half position. If Hadden's decision to have five forwards on the bench looked misguided when the team was announced, when Parks trotted out it looked potentially terminal. From a position where they had been motoring along nicely against an England side who looked to be short on ideas, desire and direction, Scotland suddenly looked vulnerable.
Scotland continued to keep up a punishing tempo up front, and behind the scrum it was the superlative skipper Mike Blair who kept the ship steaming forwards with faultless decision-making and crisp service, with the impressive Graeme Morrison providing go-forward. Yet whenever the ball made it out to Parks the move would invariably break down. If he wasn't shanking the ball back into the forwards, he was kicking aimlessly and long. He did smack over a penalty deep into the second half to take Scotland up to 15 points, yet at other times he looked an accident waiting to happen, especially when his attempted drop goal was charged down, and even more when his last-minute clearance kick was half charged down as he dallied while clearing his lines.
If Ashton's miscalculation came home to roost, Hadden can thank a barnstorming performance from his forwards for ensuring that his didn't. Whether he heeds the lesson is another thing. For both England and Scotland it looked like the end of an era, the changing of the old guard. For Parks and Wilkinson it looked like the beginning of the end, the day the baton passed to Paterson and Cipriani for good.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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