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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
News
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Walker and Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious 5
film
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss