Six Nations 2011: Jonny Wilkinson is still a real hero for England

Powered by article titled “Six Nations 2011: Jonny Wilkinson is still a real hero for England” was written by Richard Williams, for The Guardian on Tuesday 1st March 2011 00.17 UTC

The enhanced drinking time provided by a five o’clock kick-off made Twickenham an unusually raucous place on Saturday and the roar that greeted Jonny Wilkinson’s emergence 10 minutes into the second half would have easily drowned the noise of the long-haul jets flying low on the approach to Heathrow.

A special kind of cheer is reserved for the survivors of the 2003 World Cup winning squad – Steve Thompson and Simon Shaw were other beneficiaries on Saturday – and there is an extra-special one for Jonny. No England fan is going to forget what he gave the team as they fought to reach the highest place on the podium of international rugby.

Now, too, there is a hint of poignancy, even something elegiac, in that lusty acclaim. Many of us thought that we had seen the last of Wilkinson years ago, when the stingers began to come, one after another, followed by the hernia, the knee ligament problem, the ankle injury, the appendicitis and the injured kidney. As England struggled to recapture the eminence that had been theirs during the build-up to that rainy night in Sydney, he was condemned to watch from the shadows. So what we are seeing of him now seems like an unexpected bonus, a glimpse of a rather glorious Indian summer.

Wilkinson would dispute such a suggestion. In his mind ambition still burns. As long as he is fit enough to earn his place in the squad there is no point in looking further ahead and trying to predict how long he can stay there. The rest of us, however, have the idea that the clock is ticking and that this autumn’s World Cup, his fourth, will be his last.

But he is no museum piece and Martin Johnson would be the last to select a player on sentimental grounds. Nowadays the 31-year-old Wilkinson’s opportunities are restricted by Johnson’s desire to use an outside-half with a greater natural inclination to play close to the gain line but he has come on for Toby Flood in all three Six Nations matches this season and made a real contribution to each one.

Even with limited opportunities the golden boy still does marvellous things that you would happily show to any aspiring stand-off. Two weeks ago there was the magnificent tackle that slammed Andrea Masi into touch. Despite the match being done and dusted, Wilkinson was showing the customary disregard for his own physical wellbeing.

On Saturday he started with that penalty from close to halfway, the ball sailing through the cold air to stretch the lead to its final margin. Twickenham hugged itself. Fifteen minutes later he was taking a French clearance kick over his shoulder a few metres inside his own half, then spinning out a long, long pass to Mike Tindall, so flat and fast that it might have come from the barrel of a rifle, inviting the England captain to break two sets of tackles on a rampaging run. As the match entered its last 10 minutes he slid a marvellous inside pass to Chris Ashton, who mystifyingly declined the opportunity to take on the last defender in favour of a wildly optimistic pass to Mark Cueto.

There was time for one more piece of unshowy magic in the form of a smooth one-handed pass to Tindall, who almost reached the line before the French regained possession. And when the ball was kicked back into the England half, who was there to field it and run back into contact, keen to regain every possible centimetre and set off a new series of phases? You guessed it.

A colleague who was still in the stands 20 minutes after the end of the Italy match reports that the only player on the pitch was Wilkinson, performing shuttle sprints under a coach’s supervision while his colleagues were showering, changing and preparing for the night’s festivities. Nothing changes there. You wouldn’t say that he is raging against the dying of the light, because Jonny is far too polite to rage against anything. But now, given that he plays his club rugby in France, we had better make the most of every remaining chance to watch this singular man, this true hero.

Words cannot express what cannot be put into words

If you ever wondered why people like me keep suggesting that panels of experts on television sports programmes are usually improved by the presence of a journalist or two, then you should have seen last weekend’s Match of the Day.

Dean Richards, a fine centre-half who distinguished himself with Wolves, Spurs and other clubs before being forced into premature retirement for health reasons, died on Saturday morning at the age of 36. The MOTD panel thus had several hours in which to consider and devise an appropriate response. The best Messrs Lineker, Hansen and Lawrenson could do, however, was to look appropriately solemn for a few seconds and mumble a few semi-coherent condolences. Not a word from any of them about what sort of a player Richards was, what he achieved in the game and what led to his retirement. Words, they seemed to be suggesting, are inadequate at such a time. Actually that is what words are for. At least when employed by people who have some idea of how to use them.

Gracious in defeat

Marc Lièvremont ruffled a few feathers with his disparaging references to England’s reputation among the other Six Nations contestants last week but the France coach more than made up for it at Twickenham on Saturday night. “I’m disappointed because we could have won,” he declared, “but as Mr Winston Churchill said, ‘Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.'” He added: “I said it before the game and I saw it again now, I think England are better than us at the moment.” There could hardly have been a more gracious acceptance of defeat.

Tapping the wrong tune

Gabriel Obertan was caught by the television cameras in the directors’ box during Manchester United’s win at Wigan on Saturday, wearing a pair of giant headphones and tapping out a text message. In the next seat was Ryan Giggs, who celebrates the 20th anniversary of his first appearance in the Premier League tonight. Do you not think the 22-year-old Frenchman might have done better to take the opportunity of engaging his United team-mate in conversation, picking up tips on wing play from a man with an unparalleled store of experience and a willingness to share it?

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