Wilkinson tries hard but Sexton succeeds

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The Independent Online

This match was broadcast by some cinemas in 3D, but it was in the stadium that Martin Johnson's England had to disclose more than one dimension. And while the manager would doubtless be revolted by the idea, you did not necessarily require red rose-tinted spectacles to discern more promise in defeat than in that ghastly victory in Rome a fortnight before.

Johnson has never had the slightest compunction about "winning ugly". But that approach will always leave your men exposed if they only get as far as the ugly bit. They had become infected by that glowering demeanour of his. On the face of it, three tries by Ireland's backs against one by an England prop, burrowing from six inches, implied little progress. But there were hints here that Johnson will not always be satisfied with the spirit weak, and the flesh willing.

This, after all, is perhaps the most accomplished of all Irish sides, albeit one embracing transition of its own. Its hydraulic centurion, "Bull" Hayes, came off after an hour and Brian O'Driscoll for once proved groggy enough to accept a stretcher. The state of these nations, however, was condensed most obviously at fly-half.

For Jonny Wilkinson, the spectre was not the troubled, unruly Danny Cipriani. It was the young man standing a few yards away, in a green shirt. The symmetry extended to their Christian names, but the divergence of their career graphs implies that it cannot be too long before Wilkinson follows Ronan O'Gara, the man relegated by Jonny Sexton.

O'Gara was asked to make his experience tell for the final 10 minutes, but Sexton had done enough to show why he will be the bedrock of Ireland's World Cup next year. He had set up both Irish tries; for the third, Tommy Bowe skinned Wilkinson. It was an unhappy image.

The Johnson chariot is an automatic, and he mistrusts the manual gear shifts of more rococo talents. Everything Johnson cherishes in Wilkinson is everything he mistrusts in Cipriani. The young buck, it is muttered, is not just independent but seditious. Wilkinson was introduced as England's youngest ever cap against these opponents, on this ground, in 1998. Since then he has had traumas, physical and mental, and he too has sought sanctuary abroad. But not even his most unsentimental critic has ever accused him of conceit.

In Rome, however, his isolation had begun to seem too literal – he was retreating, increasingly, to the slip lane behind the breakdown trucks. He had become too stand-offish a stand-off. But how he tried here. Johnson had professed contempt for the critics, but there was something self-conscious, something forced, about Wilkinson's scrupulous determination to run the ball. When he kicked his first penalty, after 15 minutes, England had still to essay a kick from hand.

Here is a man whose placidity is supposed to redress the indecision of those around him. It was harrowing to see him start in such jittery fashion. He appeared to take the kick-off in a pair of stilettos, scuffing the ball barely five yards, and three minutes later he was turned over – admittedly scrambling to retrieve horrible ball – to ignite the move finished off by Sexton's grubber and a try for Bowe. It was difficult to resist a note of valediction in the sudden curtains of rain.

Sexton, meanwhile, kicked with cruel precision from hand. At the dead ball, he has a studied, loose-limbed insouciance, exaggerating the agonised, cramped posture of Wilkinson.

Briefly, typically, the Englishman seemed to have pulled it out of the fire with a drop-goal that sent his side into the lead for the first time. But it was the forwards who gave them the last sniff of a reprieve, mauling towards the line with 78 minutes on the clock. In the long term, it was probably better for England not to get out of it that way. For at some point they must resolve the paradox of their paragon.

The numbers game

England/Ireland

5 Scrums won 4

1 Scrums lost 0

16 Line-outs won 5

3 Line-outs lost 1

6 Penalties conceded 14

1 Turnovers won 8

140 Passes completed 58

2 Line breaks 4

21 Possession kicked 28

30 Tackles made 99

7 Tackles missed 1

4 Total errors 9

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