England, bidding to appear in a third successive World Cup final, may have won their opening Pool B matches, against Argentina and Georgia, but both fixtures have seen them concede numerous penalties.
It was all too much for manager Martin Johnson, who told his players to up their game after Sunday’s 41-10 win over Georgia where England, who ran in six tries, gave away 11 penalties in the first half alone.
Wilkinson is best known for the extra-time drop-goal that enabled then England captain Johnson to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy after a thrilling 2003 World Cup final against Australia in Sydney.
But the memory of England’s quarter-final loss to South Africa four years earlier in Paris remains vivid for both men.
“Johnno talked about watching the semi-final on TV and then going out to play Newcastle away,” Wilkinson, now with French side Toulon, told reporters here on Tuesday.
“I know exactly what he was talking about because he was playing against me that day,” the fly-half added.
“In 1999 we got knocked out in the quarter-finals and the next week of the semi-final was possibly one of the coldest, rainiest days we had at Newcastle and we were playing against Leicester,” recalled the 32-year-old, England’s record points scorer with 1,159 from 88 Tests.
“He’s right, that’s how it works. If you don’t get these things right, there comes a time when next time is four months along the line in the Six Nations, it’s not next week.
“Sooner or later next week doesn’t appear for a team in the World Cup. We just have to make sure we don’t leave ourselves in that position.
“World Cups are do or die.”
Poor goalkicking by their opponents let England off the hook in their first two matches.
But Wilkinson, who himself struggled with the boot against Argentina and then saw Toby Flood start at fly-half against Georgia, does not expect fellow Pool B rivals Romania, England’s next opponents this Saturday, and old foes Scotland, who boast two good goalkickers in Chris Paterson and Dan Parks, to be as obliging.
“Mistakes in a World Cup are going to cost you,” Wilkinson said. “They could have cost us very badly in the first half against Georgia.
“Thankfully for us, a few (of their penalty) kicks went wide and we were able to go into half-time in a good position — but who knows what will happen next time?
“We just can’t afford to do it. Sooner or later it will be something we can’t come back from.”
However, Wilkinson insisted England were realising the error of their ways.
“The guys are taking this massively on board and believe me guys are understanding now that once is a mistake, twice is a lot more than that and three times just can’t happen.”