Wednesday 13 December 2017

Wilkinson ready for Flutey boost

David Hands

ITALY may mean many things to Jonny Wilkinson.

They are the country against whom he first captained England, the ones against whom he scored 35 points on a red-letter day in 2001 and England recorded 80. They are also, tomorrow, the country against whom he must prove that there is a greater dimension to England's play than has so far been evident this season.

There is general agreement among some of rugby's sagest pundits that Wilkinson's form is not at its height. There are reasons for this: he is playing a different kind of game with Toulon than England have required of him.

He is playing in a national side trying to establish their own identity, with a scrum-half with whom he has started only twice and Danny Care is, in any case, trying to find his own place in the pecking order.

Tomorrow at the Stadio Flaminio in Rome, which yesterday had one of its chillier days, Wilkinson will also play for the first time with Riki Flutey as his inside centre.


The populist line is that Flutey can become a latter-day Mike Catt or Will Greenwood, who can take the heat off Wilkinson, be his eyes and ears, pull strings that Wilkinson does not necessarily perceive.

This is a little insulting to a player who will be winning his 75th cap in a 12-year England career, who has scored more international points than anyone else. If Wilkinson does not know how to run a game by now, then he never will.

At the start of this Six Nations Championship, there was an argument to start Toby Flood at out-half ahead of Wilkinson. That argument would have been stronger had Flood not spent the first three months of the season recovering from a damaged Achilles tendon and when he returned for Leicester, his form was too uneven for Martin Johnson to contemplate demoting his 2003 World Cup-winning colleague.

Then Wilkinson goes out at Twickenham a week ago and kicks six out of six against Wales. There are countries who would kill for consistency such as that, but tomorrow is an opportunity for England to expand and Wilkinson has to be part of that, otherwise his place is under threat. England's set-piece attack against Wales was prosaic, easily defended; and the possibilities from the back three were hardly glimpsed.

Are we asking Wilkinson to be what he is not, an instinctive player? He has never had the fastest feet but he is capable of the half-break and offload; his courage sometimes lets him down because he will take the hit rather than put another player in trouble.

"As the out-half, it's a massive thing to have all those calls coming in so you know about your options and your decisions are better informed," Wilkinson said, making him seem slightly robotic.

Maybe Flutey can set him free. The centre has similar gifts to Catt and Greenwood in that he sees space quicker than others.

"The biggest goal this weekend is for us to play with the ball," Wilkinson said. "Seeing guys get the ball in the right areas is key for me." (© The Times, London)

Italy -- L McLean; A Masi, G Canale, G Garcia, Mirco Bergamasco; C Gower, T Tebaldi; S Perugini, L Ghiraldini (capt), M Castrogiovanni, Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami, J Sole, Mauro Bergamasco, A Zanni. Replacements: F Ongaro, M Aguero, V Bernabo, P Derbyshire, P Canavosio, R Bocchino, K Robertson.

England -- D Armitage; M Cueto, M Tait, R Flutey, U Monye; J Wilkinson, D Care; T Payne, D Hartley, D Cole, S Shaw, S Borthwick (capt), J Haskell, L Moody, N Easter. Replacements: S Thompson, D Wilson, M Mullan, L Deacon, S Armitage, P Hodgson, T Flood.

REF -- C Berdos (France).

Italy v England

Live, tomorrow, RTE 2/BBC 1, 2.30

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