James Corrigan: No bull, but not enough raging

Captain Vickery's honest hard work fails to inspire his wilting troops
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As a professional who takes his nickname so seriously that he even has his own clothes range called "Raging Bull", the England captain should perhaps have been ready to accept this bloody nose as the very least of inconveniences he and his team might have suffered.

After all, as Phil Vickery's hero Jake LaMotta would no doubt have advised, you should never, ever underestimate the Italian fighting spirit. They only take dives in the most dire of circumstances.

And Vickery graciously acknowledged that these visitors could well have been contenders. In low tones, he spoke of a second half that "lacked cohesion" and a forward effort bereft of physicality and control. He peered at the statistics that veered around so violently that Italy could claim to have 75 per cent of second-half possession and wonder aloud what on earth had gone wrong. "We have plenty of work to do in the next few weeks," Vickery said, sounding rather relieved that the juggernaut will be deemed in need of a service rather than a total overhaul.

At least that main cog known as Jonny Wilkinson is still intact. As Martin Johnson discovered before Vickery, there is something deeply comforting in being able to turn to the boot that breeds points. If in doubt, call Jonny. With five minutes left Vickery had to do just that.

If ever an expression has summed up a half of frustration it was Vickery's blank countenance when pointing Wilkinson at the posts. He shrugged, raised his eyebrows and shook his head. "What else can I do?" he all but mouthed at the booing crowd, who instantly recognised the ignominy of it all. England were on the rack and only his No 10 had the key to halt the turning.

Wilkinson converted and the win was secured. But this was not the ecstasy of seven days previous and nor was this the captain. The true size of his task had just become apparent. As the Azzurri pack laid siege to the home line, the World Cup defence seemed sooner than ever.

There is time, though, and two matches into his tenure, England are probably where Vickery expected them to be when he agreed to don the armband. He and Brian Ashton would have taken two wins, however they were delivered, and for moments in the first half at least there were signs of progression. As Italy commanded the denouement, England had dominated the opening acts and Vickery was at the very heart of it.

There was no hint of the backward march to come as the front foot was stamped down and the resistance buckled. In passages like this it is quite straightforward, being captain of England. He made a cursory attempt to establish his authority in the third minute when consulting with Wilkinson whether the penalty was on or not. But with the uprights duly split, he fell quiet as this funereal stadium whenever the referee raised his hand. Thus it was left to Nigel Owens to embarrass himself by having to ask the bleeding obvious. "Would Desperate Dan like cow pie this evening?" "Would Jonny like another pot shot at goal?"

There were other things for Vickery to consider, and when he did tell Wilkinson to kick for the corner as the clock ran down to half-time, he had even thought he had scored a try. But Owens had signalled for the infringement and nothing seemed lost when Jason Robinson jived over.

But then the dance went awry and Vickery was unable to rouse his bemused men into either recovering their poise or their game plan. This ability is the part of captaincy Vickery is palpably lacking and although he claims Johnson said little, what he did say always but always went heeded. Not all the great communicators scream and shout.

But that is what this West Countryman may have to learn to do if his team lose their shape as potentially disastrously as they did yesterday. This was a nightmare without the time to unfold and for Vickery and England the dream lives on. He is still a long way from being cast as the "Vickery of Dibley". He may yet have the last laugh.