When Martin Johnson digs in his heels, he digs them in so deep they end up somewhere near the earth's core. Yesterday, the England manager was at his most resolute and unapologetic – not to say immovable – as he defended his side's much-criticised Six Nations performance in Italy, together with Jonny Wilkinson's part in it. "If we have to kick the ball for 80 minutes, we'll kick it for 80 minutes," he pronounced, indicating that Wilkinson would be the man doing the kicking for a while yet.
Insisting again that his team had done "lots of good things" in Rome – a view wholly at odds with that of many travelling England supporters, who left the Eternal City wondering whether eternity might have been shorter than the game they had just watched – Johnson said: "People want to see an entreating game, but we do things because they're effective, not because they're entertaining. The kicking game is a big part of rugby: it was in Italy and it will be when we play Ireland. When we beat France last year, we scored our first try because they ran a kick back at us and we turned them over. No one complained then.
"We're not kidding ourselves; we're not saying we couldn't have done better in Rome. There were times when we could have kept the ball in hand and there were opportunities we didn't take. But when we attacked with conviction we looked good. Anyway, it's not a bad thing for us to go through a game like that. There was a nervous situation at the end and we had to keep our heads."
As for Wilkinson, whose inability to orchestrate a running game in the way Matt Giteau does for the Wallabies or Stephen Jones does for Wales is the subject of an increasingly lively debate, there was no criticism from the manager. "He's not undroppable – no one's undroppable," Johnson insisted. "But was it Jonny's fault we didn't convert our line-breaks? No, it was a team thing. I find it surprising and disappointing when everyone calls for his head, just because he misses a few kicks. It's become the vogue to have a pop at Jonny, but it's not always right or fair."
Wilkinson has been dropped twice by England in a 12-year international career: once by Clive Woodward on the eve of the 1999 World Cup quarter-final with South Africa, and once by Brian Ashton for the 2008 Six Nations game with Ireland. If the first of these decisions was less-than successful, the second, which unleashed Danny Cipriani as a Test outside-half, was a selectorial triumph. Cipriani is no longer in the mix, but if Toby Flood turns in a big performance for Leicester this weekend, the degree of heat on Wilkinson will only intensify.
Johnson did not reject the suggestion that parts of the incumbent's game were too valuable to lose, despite shortcomings elsewhere. "It's always the case with players, isn't it?" he said. "You always have people not in the team who are potentially better in some areas than those in the side. You have to weigh the overall impact. I think Toby is playing well, and we're fortunate to have good depth in the position."
Flannery banned until April
Jerry Flannery, the Ireland hooker who took a knee-high swipe at the French wing Alexis Palisson in Paris last weekend, was yesterday banned until the end of March by a Six Nations disciplinary tribunal and will miss the rest of the tournament. He will, however, be available for Munster's Heineken Cup quarter-final with Northampton on 10 April.
Flannery's hack put Palisson off the field and it would have been no surprise had he been suspended for the rest of the season. Instead, the panel decided the challenge had been reckless rather than deliberate. Rory Best of Ulster is now likely to start next weekend's match with England at Twickenham.
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