Chris McGrath: Risk-free mantra of coach will have France licking lips
It looked very much as though the motto of Johnson is safety first – and second – and third
Monday 15 February 2010
Rome was not built in a day, but this constipated performance makes you despair of Martin Johnson ever getting round to some kind of decorative mosaic over the hypocaust.
There were two world-class coaches in the stadium. One, Nick Mallett, must be exasperated that even in cutting his cloth so scrupulously he could not quite save Italy's dignity. The other, Claudio Ranieri, had supervised his hometown team, Roma, to a sixth consecutive success the previous day. Jonny Wilkinson and friends certainly did their best to make him feel at home. In fact, on those rare occasions when the endless exchange of kicks was occasionally interrupted by a pass, every instinct would have prompted Ranieri to shout "handball!"
And what of Johnson? Are we any nearer knowing what kind of team he is trying to create? Once again, after all the loose talk of emancipation stimulated by that weird game against the Welsh, it looked very much as if the motto is safety first. And second. And third.
Before the game, Wilkinson had made the touching suggestion that his emigration to Toulon is helping to make his rugby "more French". Judged on this performance, that is akin to suggesting that the Larousse Gastronomique might be condensed into a pamphlet setting out the correct use of the can opener and microwave.
If you have ever wondered what Wilkinson might do for England, stripped of his immaculate goal- kicking, here was your opportunity. You might just as well put Jordan behind a veil, and concentrate on her literary legacy. In missing three kicks, including one he might customarily have scooped over in flip-flops, Wilkinson placed the rest of his game in merciless perspective. It may or may not be a coincidence that the move that led to Mathew Tait's try began with Wilkinson safely locked up at the bottom of a ruck.
Ultimately, however – and typically – the difference between the sides boiled down to two moments that reiterated his unprecedented contribution, over the years, with the boot. His second penalty, which drew England level at 6-6 with the last kick of the first half, took him to 500 career points in this tournament. And then, in dropping that late goal with his wrong hoof, he showed exactly why he remains so precious to Johnson.
Where the great fly-halves have all been pivots, Wilkinson has instead served as a base. A very solid base, admittedly, that served as a plinth for the World Cup when Johnson was captain. And, of course, none of the alternatives can pretend to match his temperament and experience.
As it happens, precisely the same assets ostensibly represent Johnson's credentials as a manager. But he has zero experience as a coach, and hence his team's palpable aversion to risk-taking. You only take a risk because you have confidence in what you are doing. After this, his first away victory, is there the remotest sense that Johnson is developing any such certainty?
He allowed Mallett to set the agenda by packing his bench with five forwards, and sending the dashing Ben Foden home. And the theory that Riki Flutey might unlock some hidden adventure in Wilkinson, after 74 caps, was sampled only fleetingly.
In fairness, the back three showed glimpses of what might still be done, but an awful lot of this game was furniture-shifting – in which the Italians showed superior mobility, notably through the man of the match, Alessandro Zanni. Rest assured, the French will not have watched this from behind the sofa. Unless, that is, they had rolled off laughing.
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