England should be wary of getting carried away
February 5, 2007
Jonny Wilkinson made a try-scoring return for England as they beat Scotland to win the Calcutta Cup © Getty Images
Cast me, if you like, as Miserable Unfriendly Git of E17, but before you do so, ask yourself how pleased you would be if, at the most pressurised time of your working week, you were bearded by a succession of perfect strangers who want to tell you how the job should be done.
Just occasionally, though, something is worth passing on. With due thanks to the chap who wanted me to question touch-judge Steve Walsh's parentage, I'll leave that and instead quote yet another Unknown Man in a Red Shirt who said :"England for the Six Nations championship this year."
Not, since this was a Welshman speaking, an optimist. And as well as conveying a sideswipe at his own team, it suggested that he didn't think overmuch of Ireland, either.
And he would certainly have found plenty of takers 23 hours earlier at Twickenham after the second coming of You Know Who. The phrase ' like the good old days' was being bandied by journalists I've not previously seen as English partisans and you half expected a chorus of 'Happy Days are Here Again', from the public address.
Fair enough. Wilkinson's comeback and the England performance that accompanied it were both everything that Brian Ashton - to be congratulated for having the nerve to try such an audacious team selection - might have hoped for.
An England championship is certainly no more improbable than a Welsh one was in 2005. It could happen. But English fans in particular should pause before raising hopes too high. As John Cleese once put it :"I can stand the despair, it's the hope that's intolerable". Take it from me - I'm Welsh, so I know - that there's nothing much more depressing than hailing a false dawn, then watching it evaporate.
A few things to remember. This time last year England were feeling pretty pleased with themselves after flattening Wales 47-13. Then the romantic comeback story was Lawrence Dallaglio's. There was still a visible swagger when they marched into Edinburgh three weeks later with a further win against Italy to their credit.
And we know what happened there.
England have become the Six Nations' specialists in the fast start and the feeble finish. Over the last three seasons, they've won five games out of six in the first two rounds, then two out of nine in the last three.
Now, this might well be different. There was a strong element of 'Who Writes his scripts?' about Wilkinson's day. A meter everyone feared stopped at 52 (caps) and 817 (points) clicked around to 53 and 844. It was somehow typical that he was shedding blood before he'd registered a point.
The simple reassurance of having someone who routinely kicks his goals and takes right options was evident in England's display. You might even argue that he started getting some payback on three years of foul luck by being awarded a try through a decision that brought the entire concept of television referees into disrepute. If they get things that wrong, there's no point in having them.
And let's not forget the other elements of reassurance in England's display. Jason Robinson, suitably enough for so committed a christian, seems to be born again as an international winger. Harry Ellis may never play a more effective game in an England shirt. Nor might Mike Tindall.
The forwards looked more like the rolling, grinding crushing machine of yore. England should beat Italy, whose performance was the great let-down of the opening weekend. But we'll only get a real sense of their worth a couple of weeks later, when they go to Dublin.
There they'll meet an Irish team with some of the hardnosed pragmatism they once regarded as their own, capable of soaking up long periods of pressure and of striking hard when they get their own chances. By then the Irish will also have given the French team who looked distinctly useful - Mignoni, Skrela and Chabal all setting personal bests - a truer test than the hapless Italians were able to contrive.
Ireland's back row certainly won't give Ellis the space the Scots allowed him - I wouldn't expect a huge number of changes in teams this week, but Ally Hogg surely has to come back - while D'Arcy and O'Driscoll will fully test the Tindall-Farrell partnership. They, and Wales, played at a higher tempo and with far more invention than anything England or Scotland managed at Twickenham.
After that there's the French, and Wales might by the time England pitch up in Cardiff on March 17th have the missing threequarters - Tom Shanklin, Shane Williams and Mark Jones - who could have made a serious difference against Ireland.
England for the Six Nations? Worth a punt, particularly if you can still get half-decent odds. But don't bet anything you can't afford to lose on it.
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