Sunday, 28 December 2008

The Jonny Wilkinson Factor

After weeks of competition, Alexandra Burke was judged to have the X-Factor which has propelled her from a no-body to stardom. At around about the same time, Jonny Wilkinson announced that he hopes to be playing by mid-February or March after a successful operation on his dislocated kneecap. One of the few players who remain from England’s 2003 World Cup victory, the fly-half when at full fitness is arguably the only England player of world class or possessing the X-Factor.

Wilkinson, as England’s leading points scorer with 1,032 from 70 test matches, is undoubtedly one of the greats, but the question remains to be answered as to whether his absence is the difference between the successful England teams of the 21st century and the failures. Undoubtedly he was the key in England’s World Cup victory in Australia – not only with the last gasp drop-goal to win the final, but throughout the tournament. Likewise, in the 2007 World Cup, Wilkinson’s return in their third group match seemed to revitalise the group as they went onto the final to lose to South Africa. Particularly in the Semi-Final victory over France, it was Wilkinson’s boot which kicked 9 points including a 40-yard drop-goal. Would Wilkinson in the autumn just gone have made a difference and perhaps have given England more success – particularly in the Australia game.

Look at all successful teams and they have had a solid, reliable goal kicker: in 1995 for the South Africans it was Joel Stransky; when watching Dan Carter of late for New Zealand and the Crusaders the points are often on the scoreboard before the ball was kicked; and in the last few weeks Nick Evans has proved to Harlequins what a kicker can achieve - setting up grandstand finishes against Stade Fran├žais in the Heineken Cup, and Leicester yesterday. England, when Wilkinson has been absent have not been able to match this: Charlie Hodgson has never really recreated his Sale kicking percentages at international level; Danny Cipriani perhaps found the step up to international level too much during the Autumn Internationals; and Toby Flood has not been able to shrug off Wilkinson’s shadow at club and international level.

England failed to score many tries throughout 2008 but this is really no difference to 2003. The media in the Southern Hemisphere accused England of boring play and a lack of cutting instinct able to break through opposition defences. The obvious difference between the two was Jonny Wilkinson’s left – and often right – boot that was able to accumulate points at regular intervals and pin the opposition back.

Wilkinson is a metronome when it comes to kicking and is definitely missed by England. But what he also brings is a determination and he knows how to close out games, which is vital in his position. Against Australia, which was the only game against the Tri-Nations England came close to winning, they lacked a player of Wilkinson’s experience to be able to drop a goal to keep the scoreboard ticking over, and to put the ball in the corner when required – maintaining the pressure on the opposition. He is also very big in defence. With the fly-half channel often being an opportunity for oppositions to let their big runners attack and roll over weak tacklers, Wilkinson stands up with back row forwards, and this perhaps contributes to his injury problems.

Jonny Wilkinson is unique as he is of genuine world class. The term is often banded about but with the Newcastle Falcon it cannot be understated – and it is this which separates England ’03 from England ’09. England ’03 had this throughout the side in the key positions: other than Wilkinson, Will Greenwood was a pivotal playmaker and try-scorer whose contribution to the side was often over-looked; equally in the pack the back row of Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back and Richard Hill was formidable, and obviously the leadership Martin Johnson.

In today’s pool of England players no-one is near this standard – but many have the potential. For me, Danny Care was one of the few members of the England squad to come out of the autumn fixtures with any credit. The Quins number nine, who turns 22 next week has grabbed his opportunity to take the England shirt with both hands at a point where there were many others vying for the position – Peter Richards, Harry Ellis and Richard Wigglesworth. What is perhaps key for Care is that he stays in the team, and builds a partnership with a fly-half to develop a devastating half-back combination which becomes world class. It is important to note that world class partnerships and combinations do not necessarily comprise of world class individuals, but can be more devastating. Danny Cipriani, who certainly has been seen as the most likely to fill England’s fly-half shirt if Wilkinson does never fully shake off his injury problems, could form a very exciting partnership with Care. The two could develop together to be the focal point of the England attack if given the opportunity and time. Equally players like James Haskell could become a long term successor to Dallaglio; Jordan Turner-Hall at just 20 is reveling in the Harlequins team and could make the step up; and if Matt Tait eradicates some of his inconsistencies he could fill the void which still hasn’t been filled after Will Greenwood’s retirement.

Clive Woodward took six years to build his World Cup winning side. The Tour to Hell which saw devastating defeats away to Australia and New Zealand in the summer of 1998 was arguably a crucial part of the development of the side. It gave players who were to be pivotal in 2003 such as Wilkinson and Josh Lewsey some hard lessons in international rugby, which is maybe what Cipriani experienced a few months ago and what others need to experience now to be successful in the future.

It is testament to Wilkinson’s ability that we still speak of him as we do and pin our hopes on him, despite the fact that since that infamous drop goal in 2003 he has only played a handful of games for both club and country. But as Toby Flood has experienced more than any other, when Jonny Wilkinson is about his shadow will be cast on any pretender to his throne - a near-impossible reputation to live up to. This probably prompted Flood’s move to Leicester in the summer so that he could develop as a player without Wilkinson always on his back. England certainly misses the ability which Wilkinson possesses, and it cannot be discovered overnight. If Wilkinson is to be believed then he still has his best years in front of him, but this waits to be seen. If I was Martin Johnson I would begin to take a punt and begin backing some young guns. They may experience some blows at first, but youngsters with ability can come back and be stronger for the experience. Cipriani, despite his spluttering start clearly has class and the confidence which is required and I would let him form a partnership with Danny Care; others such as Haskell need to be able to make mistakes at International level to be able to gain world class status.

England needs to rebuild, which has begun with the introductions of Delon Armitage and should continue with Care and Cipriani. Wilkinson is a cut above, or at least was. We should remember what he has achieved and enjoy the success that he has brought, but until he manages to play back-to-back matches for Newcastle and play well, his name should not be talked about when discussing England squads and Lions squads for that matter.

Will Gilgrass - 28th December 2008

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