Alun Carter: Wilkinson proves he is up to the task before Red Rose wilts in face of Roman assault

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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson took an unfair amount of flak after the collapse against Wales last week. He responded superbly yesterday against Italy as he has done in the past year for England.

After the World Cup drubbing to South Africa and with the 2003 winners facing an early exit, Wilkinson returned to play against Samoa giving a faultless display. He was at the heart of their attack dropping two goals, kicking four penalties and engineering a try for Paul Sackey. Yesterday in Rome, he again responded in dramatic fashion, creating the first try after three minutes.

English pressure play was exemplified particularly at the line-out, where they won a third of Italian throws, the critical one a captain's steal by Steve Borthwick five metres from their own line. Again Wilkinson was instrumental, deciding to kick for touch so Borthwick and the forwards could put their stranglehold on the Italian line-out.

Another dreadful second-half English performance means they have conceded 33 points whilst scoring six in this period over their last two matches. Tiredness showed in six penalties conceded by the visitors and Italy dominated territory and possession.

Brian Ashton made a shock substitution, taking Wilkinson off in the 66th minute. With the English seeing very little of the ball it was a strange decision and compounded by the fact that his replacement, Danny Cipriani, gifted Italy a try.

The most significant Six Nations statistic from the weekend concerned the battering the French defence took from Ireland. The Irish will be extremely disappointed at losing despite having won the ball in the French 22 on 49 occasions. Between them, France (7), Wales (26) and Scotland (15) could record only 48.

The French will also be concerned about the weakness of their forwards, who conceded both Irish tries up front.

Wales conceded just 84 points in the 2005 Grand Slam and are on course to achieve a low tally again. They have scored 30 out of their 56 points in the last quarter of their first two matches, so Warren Gatland has already had an effect on their fitness and defensive qualities.

On Saturday, Wales had a high ball-in-play time of over 44 minutes, or 55 per cent of match time (the match average for 2007 was 46 per cent) and scored all three tries from broken-play situations, where this team is at its best.

Alun Carter was head of match analysis for the Wales team from 1998 to 2007 and technical assistant to Graham Henry on the 2001 Lions tour of Australia. He played back-row for Pontypool, Newport and Wales.

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