James Lawton: Jonny's comeback secures survival but not new life
Four years ago, Jonny Wilkinson kicked for glory. He took himself to the apex of English sport, a place he will always occupy as long as people remember the World Cup triumph. Now he is doing something entirely different, not from the apex but, let's face it, the basement. He is, from a critically late start in this sixth World Cup, kicking for survival. He is buying a little time, a little respectability.
It is impossible to put it higher than that at this point – and England's debt to him, we can say in a sport which, despite the shape of the ball, permits more certainties than most others is almost as huge as the one they acquired in Sydney in 2003. A drop goal and a huge penalty, one of four successfully converted in six attempts, stopped the wild and suddenly optimistic heartbeat of Samoa.
This, be sure, was the dividing line which separated England from what would have been the most rapid and dismal descent in the history of any major sport. Had the fabled technique of Wilkinson not held together, had he not survived the withering but questionably illegal tackle by Brian Lima, the hitter known darkly as "The Chiropractor", which left Samoa on the point of scoring what would have been a devastating try before the late call of the referee, Alan Lewis, all talk of England's resurrection could well have dissolved in the pale Atlantic sunshine.
As it is, their Lazarus footsteps carry no guarantee of survival in the final pool game against Tonga, which offers both teams a quarter-final place against an Australia who, like their southern hemisphere rivals New Zealand and South Africa, seem to be operating on another level of confidence and insight. At Parc des Princes next Friday England can only hope that what their coach, Brian Ashton, describes as some kind of explosion of "positives" against a Samoa who were ransacked by South Africa and beaten by Tonga, does not go the way of all those other faint stirrings of hope which have come and gone so regularly on the road down the hill from Sydney. England, thanks to Wilkinson, stopped the rot here, but the treatment looked far from conclusive at many critical moments.
The fact is that England got the better of a team of thrilling running potential but one who lacked the most basic requirements for serious competition at the top of the game. For the Samoans the fundamentals of rugby, including a reasonable supply of the ball from the set pieces, seem to be considered as burdensome as a request to wear evening dress at a beach party. They wear flowers in their hair in a game which, from time to time, requires the odd tin helmet or two. It meant that if England's victory did show marked improvements from the disaster of shattered shape and broken spirits at the Stade de France the week before against a brilliant Springbok team who seemed quite stunned by the ease of their task, it was a triumph not so much of dramatically raised performance as a fairly modest onset of competence.
Much has been made of England's fluidity at the end of the game, when they pulled away with two tries, one of which from Paul Sackey came with undoubted elan, but the truth was that Samoa were by then shot through with both exhaustion and collapsed hope. Their coach, the superb All Black Michael Jones, put it poignantly. He was speaking of players who had never been on his journey from the islands to the mighty fortress of New Zealand rugby, who didn't know the demands on discipline and fortitude which separates players of speed and natural talent from those who know how to be great. He said: "We thought we could beat England, we thought we had worked out the way, but that belief only lasted about 71 minutes. We just didn't do enough, so that means we blew it."
What England, for whom the scrum-half Andy Gomarsall was impressively willing to explore every inch of his talent for the organisational rather than the sublime, and Martin Corry produced an authentic captain's performance along with two tries, must do against Tonga is almost certainly rather more than that achieved against the occasionally ferocious but essentially fractured Samoans.
They have to produce the kind of consistent authority which went so badly missing on Saturday when they allowed the islanders back into the game. You could see the concern when the Samoans got hold of the ball with increasing relish in the second half – and there were times when they must have felt like lighting candles of thanksgiving when they saw the frequency of their opponents' failure to keep hold of the ball.
Before Wilkinson kicked for survival in that crucial period towards the end of the game anything could have happened to England. As it was, they won back a little life in this tournament which, four years ago, they captured with their power and conviction, but which on this occasion they came to in the most desperate disarray. But did Wilkinson really give England's World Cup journey new life?
It is a hard question after an improved performance, but these are hard days for England. The truth was they still seemed unbridgeably detached from the elite of a sport they so recently dreamt of dominating.