For 30 heady seconds it all looked so promising. Lewis Moody, the world’s first specialist kick off chaser, did his stuff and England spread the ball wide with accuracy and pace, surging to within a few feet of the Italian line. This was the rejuvenated England we had come to see, brimming with newly-discovered confidence after their victory over Wales last week.
Yet merely 2 minutes into the game, people in pubs up and down the land had already reverted to looking bewildered at each other. After those thrilling opening moments, the game had already sunk into one of the interminable rounds of ping pong which have made this whole season so trying on the spectator. And that it had happened so early clearly illustrated that this was some sort of deliberate tactic, a heavily disguised masterplan on the part of England.
What were they trying to achieve? Beats me. For the next 80 minutes, when England kept the ball in hand, attacked with pace and handled with conviction, they looked dangersou. They could and perhaps should have had at least 3 more tries. But in between times, they kicked. And kicked. And kicked. Badly. Very badly. England have never had a particularly strong kicking game. Jonny Wilkinson’s punting lacks length and at times accuracy. They have been kicked off the park in recent years by Ireland, Australia and South Africa. So why on earth did they fall back into this pattern?
They effectively starting playing Italy at their own game. Although they turned in an improved performance, Italy fundamentally lack ambition and England got dragged into exactly the sort of game the Azzurri wanted to play. This is not to disparage and patronise the Italians – they know their limitations and cut their cloth accordingly. But when England put some tempo on the game they looked as though they could run riot. But they only did so on a handful of occasions. Mark Cueto was the only England player whose instinct from deep was to run first and kick second. Games of aerial ping pong are tedious enough at the best of times but when the standard of kicking is as poor as this it borders on purgatory.
With the score at 6-6 at half time, the hope was that a few choice words in the dressing room would show the players the error of their ways. Shortly after half time, Mathew Tait scored a fantastically well-worked try and England looked to be on their way. But whether through an instruction from the stands or lack of leadership and confidence on the field, England reverted to type instead of kicking on. The best teams sense when the moment is nigh to take the game by the scruff of the neck. England failed to even notice what was plainly obvious to everybody else, that a bit more of the same and the Italians were beaten.
It is the second time in 2 weeks that England have taken a lead and stopped playing. They lack the ability to ruthlessly close a game out. While the positive is that they have found ways to win 2 tight games, the flip side is that they are going to have to become incredible at it at this rate as every game will end up as a nail-biter.
It is too easy to single out individuals – too many players simply did not show up. And it is particularly the case that when a team goes well, the fly half looks great and when things are going badly he looks awful. Jonny Wilkinson however, is becoming a concern. He will always be judged in extremes because there is so much attention on him. And we can forget his missed kicks. Everybody is entitled to an off day and that is probably only his second or third in 70-odd tests. The level of surprise only serves to illustrate quite how extraordinary his record is.
But in 5 internationals this season he has shown little sign of being able to fire the backline. He offers little threat to the defence himself so he must offer the best opportunities to others. But he singularly does not do that from his deep alignment. It negates anything ambitious England might try. His kicking from hand is not up to scratch and he lacks a running game so his goal-kicking and game management have to be out of the top drawer. The former usually is but the latter is not. He still does not lead on the pitch, not least because he is standing in the wrong place. Could it be time to look elsewhere?
I think there is little or no chance of Johnson dropping him during this championship but the progress of the team is being damaged by the way he is playing. He must be forced to stand flatter and, if necessary, be bypassed completely in the attacking third, leaving it to Riki Flutey to dictate matters. His distribution was actually of a decent standard on Saturday and, while his kicking from hand continues to fall short of this, he must be encouraged to run the ball more.
This sounds like trying to get Wilkinson to be someone other than Wilkinson. As there is nobody else crying from the rooftops to be included in his stead, this might be the best we can hope for at present. This is not a long-term solution though and Wilkinson must not be considered untouchable just because he is the marquee figure in an inexperienced team. Johnson is nothing if not loyal and he will be reluctant to look past his most trusted lieutenant. Look at his treatment of Borthwick. Wilkinson had an off-day but there is still nobody better at keeping the scoreboard moving, as shown by his timely drop goal. It would be nice though to see him contribute to moving the scoreboard by 5s and 7s rather than just 3s.
Disappointing though it was, England should not spend the next fortnight over-analysing their performance for down that path lies the sort of mental paralysis we saw in the Autumn. A few tweaks here and there will suffice from a technical point of view but an infusion of ambition and a realisation that referees are beginning to favour the attacking side at the breakdown, negating the need to kick the leather off the thing, is essential.
By Stuart Peel