Rugby Union: Unquestioning Faith in Wilkinson May Be England's Downfall ; Outside-Half's Struggle to Break Down Samoan Defence Raises Doubts over His Ability to Give Woodward's Men Necessary Creative Edge

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JONNY WILKINSON has acquired an awesome reputation. He is also a demonstrably splendid young fellow: dedicated, brave, obsessive in the way that is utterly commendable in all those who have been handed remarkable talent by the gods of sport.

In an age of so many grievously distracted celebrity sportsmen, he is heart-warmingly unswerving. He wants everything of himself. He has a pitch cleared on Christmas day so that he can continue to kick a rugby ball with an uncanny, other-worldly precision. He hurts for his art, both physically and psychologically, so much indeed that at this point in the greatest adventure of his professional life it is hard - though maybe unavoidable - to ask a painful question.

Properly it is an enquiry that should be directed not so much at a young player who has made no great claims for himself anywhere other than on the rugby field, and in the heat of the most ferocious action, but at those who have attributed to him qualities which, at the highest level, it could just be that he crucially lacks. The question is this: as the potential orchestrator of an England World Cup triumph, is Jonny Wilkinson a myth?

Certainly in the heat of Melbourne's Telstra Dome at the weekend, when England's challenge wavered so perilously against the patchwork but inspired Samoans, we found ourselves looking not at Wilkinson the giant, but the paradox.

The case could be made that he was both England's greatest strength and weakness, and that the frailty he displayed against the South Sea Islanders mirrored the major doubt about England's prospects throughout their long and impressive march to the tournament.

It is that in all of England's great and obvious strength, in the power of their pack, the relentless and unscrupulous leadership of Martin Johnson, the wit of Lawrence Dallaglio, the speed of Jason Robinson, the metronome kicking of Wilkinson, there is a certain dead zone in the matter of creative range. The worry must be that this ultimately can be exploited by teams who may be less ordered but, at the vital time, are perhaps more likely to be touched by a little more inspiration. A team, for example, like potential semi- final opponents France.

Questions about the total scale of Wilkinson's ability are not new. Indeed they have run alongside his gradual elevation to the rank of the world's top out-half. Jonathan Davies, who would have been a great half-back in any age of the game, has been as generous as anyone in his estimate of Wilkinson's worth, and his criticisms have been no more than gently implied. …