Nick Townsend: Dull thud of boot on ball is music to Wilkinson's ears

Coach finds plenty of interest in No 10's kicking return
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The Independent Online

Barely had the stitches done their work and the blood congealed on Jonny Wilkinson's mouth a week ago than he had been damned by a female newspaper writer to whose charms he had once, apparently, been impervious. "Dull. Epically, invincibly dull" was her verdict on his character. As though he would give a damn. As though England would.

For that writer's information, the England fly-half was in an utterly monotonous mood here yesterday too. It was as well that he was, with the ball at his feet, or the England head coach Brian Ashton's estimation that this could be the "banana skin" of the Six Nations may have been prophetic.

Wilkinson was never going to repeat his Six Nations match record of 35 points, which he amassed against these same opponents six years ago, but his 15 points safely secured included a piece of history. After just 181 seconds, his penalty from two yards inside the halfway line broke the 406-point record of the Welshman, Neil Jenkins, as the highest points scorer in the history of the championship.

That moment should have provided England with the momentum to kick on. But on an afternoon when the home crowd waited and waited for the visitors' powers to wane and for England to rack up their anticipated half-century of points or more, all we witnessed was a moral victory for the Azzurri. Ashton possibly won't want to be reminded that Italy "won" the second half, 7-6.

Seven days ago, we had hailed a re-galvanised England. Too often grounded last year, they were flying again with their new coach, "BA". Or so many were prepared to believe. Yet we all know what those initials can also imply. For all Wilkinson's contribution here, together with the try-scoring threat of Jason Robinson and the burgeoning form of the former Great Britain rugby league captain Andy Farrell, England are still carrying some baggage from last year.

Ashton conceded he had expected a "full-on battle right from the start". He was not disappointed, as his team demonstrated how much progress there is yet to be made in the build-up to the World Cup during a contest in which they were guilty of indifferent handling and poor use of the ball when they did retain possession. Wilkinson claims his "enjoyment" of matches generally lasts no longer than half an hour after a victory. It is doubtful whether he will dwell on this one for more than five minutes.

Italy's forwards had withstood sustained pressure until shortly before the interval, when Robinson did what he does best, scampering over for England's sole try. For once, Wilkinson failed with his conversion. The ball drifted just wide to a gasp from the crowd, as though the golden boy had committed some heinous sin. He kicked the tee away disgustedly. Ashton scribbled in his book. Must remember to hand that boy 100 lines: "I must concentrate at all times."

Princes William and Harry had looked on as England's sporting equivalent continued to extract points from the opposition, adding nine to his 27 of last week in a turgid first half. After half-time, the RFU's elite rugby director, Rob Andrew, sat explaining to Harry where things had not quite gone to plan. No doubt he felt all would be rectified.

Far from it. By the second half the boos were back and it was all too reminiscent of the autumn series, when the crowd had voiced its displeasure at Ashton's predecessor, Andy Robinson. This time, 10 minutes into the second half, the criticism may have been a little harsh, though the response to the captain, Phil Vickery, offering Wilkinson the chance to kick a penalty when the crowd wanted another try was understandable. As it was, jeers turned to cheers when Wilkinson collected the points. "If you've got a kicker like that in your side, you're going to say 'take the points'," Ashton said later.

Ultimately, England needed those points. Pierre Berbizier's men, far from humbled, far from wearied, continued to offer the examination that probably proved more valuable than an overwhelming victory would have done. Even the golden one demonstrated himself to be mortal. Before he confirmed England's triumph with a fifth penalty, Wilkinson fell short with a drop goal attempt.

Overall, he produced enough. Boring it may have been, but Ashton will thank him for that.

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