Welsh invaders risk death by Wilkinson's sword

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The Independent Online

Here are some alternative suggestions for Welsh rugby supporters planning a visit to Twickenham on 23 March, the February trip that was in the heady days of Barry, Gareth and JPR. Take off to Tibet. Or Tierra del Fuego. Some of our ancestors found their way to Patagonia so check it out. A cave in Snowdonia will do. At least, you will be cut off from television, radio and news delivery. Whatever, give Twickenham a miss.

Twickenham promises to be a horror story for Welsh rugby. By all accounts, some pride was restored in the narrow loss to France at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday and Italy's visit to Cardiff in two weeks' time could provide a much-needed victory. But then it is on to a one-sided romp for England, now statistically the best team in the world.

The Wales coach, Steve Hansen, should put a boot through the video machine otherwise half his team might go missing. Look at this way. After putting up 54 points against Wales in Dublin earlier this month, Ireland gave up 45 against England at Twickenham on Saturday. Apart from a spell in the second half when England's thrilling momentum was undermined by a plethora of substitutions, and perhaps the onset of boredom, it was as one-sided as a game of rugby can get. Maybe there are no sure-fire things in sport but the way things stand it will come as no surprise if betting simply on the result between England and Wales is suspended.

First, there is Jonny Wilkinson, whose potential is frightening. You could say that about the entire England team but mainly because playing against their fly-half is such a daunting proposition. You had to feel for the Irish flanker David Wallace who was sent to look for him on Saturday. Wallace is no mug but he ended up dizzy as Wilkinson went this way and that, ducking under lunges, spinning out of mistimed tackles.

There are ways of stopping Wilkinson, all criminal. Kidnap him. Put a Mickey Finn in his tea. Otherwise you might just as well step back and admire his talent, the footwork, the vision, the remarkable pick-ups under pressure. Wilkinson's effect on others is important too. Decent players in the England team are being made to look exceptional. As one old hand puts it: "Good luck to them, but because of Wilkinson's brilliance they are getting a free ride".

Some of the credit for this rests with England's coach Clive Woodward, who should of course, have taken the British Lions to Australia last summer instead of Graham Henry. Woodward's willingness to take every facet of the handling game on board, from rugby league, from grid-iron could be found in his comparison between Wilkinson and any top running back. "That's the sort of yardage Jonny puts up," he said.

Above all, in common with all supremely gifted footballers in any code, Wilkinson makes no great demands upon the audience; it isn't necessary to probe for hidden qualities in his game or to appreciate some subtle role in the tactical scheme of things. Above all, he is quite simply a breaker of opponents' hearts – alert, sharp, creative, deadly. Woodward spoke about an improvement in Wilkinson's footwork. Wilkinson himself spoke about how the example of Robinson's darting mobility drove him further up the ladder. Practice makes permanent as they say.

Don't Ireland know it. In Dublin last October, they put paid to England's quest for an elusive grand slam. They have some terrific footballers, a sound method. But this was different. The expectation of a difficult match turned out to be wishful thinking. Almost immediately thrown onto the back foot, they stayed there until England's foot came off the pedal.

Keeping the ball away from Ireland's back row, England went from one side to the other, opening up space, releasing runners. Even the heavy brigade were made to look athletic by the incessant thrust of England's play. "Jesus, they could have given us 30 points of a start," an Irish supporter said.

And still Woodward wasn't satisfied. He complained about ball lost at the point of contact. Defensive errors. Frightening. Their blood lust apparently satisfied, England's supporters hardly raised a cheer in the second half. Just watched the Irish have their little spell then went happily off to the bars. The French may have something to say in Paris two weeks from now. But if you are Welsh and in possession of a Twickenham ticket, sell it. If you can.

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