Wilkinson revels in defence of the realm

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According to tradition, every active member of the rugby community falls into one of two categories: he is either a "piano shifter", charged with winning the ball by whatever dubious means he feels he can get away with, or a "piano player", who creates beautiful art from the raw material provided by his less celebrated colleagues with the missing teeth and the cauliflower faces. Sadly for the traditionalists, this comfortable little arrangement fails to account for Jonathan Peter Wilkinson Esq, who is capable of humping a Steinway concert grand up a flight of stairs while performing Chopin's nocturnes with his spare hand.

Newcastle's 20-year-old outside-half is 50 per cent Glenn Gould, 50 per cent Pickfords. In the space of three Six Nations' Championship matches, he has created sweet midfield music far beyond the harmonic range of Ireland and Wales, who seemed positively tone-deaf by comparison, while single-handedly dismantling two very substantial items in Emile Ntamack and Gareth Thomas and packing them into neat little boxes. As an all-round contributor to the red rose cause, he is right up there with Dawson and Dallaglio.

If England's opponents have yet to work out exactly how Wilkinson operates in attack, they are only too painfully aware of what he does in defence. He won rave reviews for his open-field tackle on Ntamack in Paris a month ago: it was "Skinner on Cecillon all over again," said the masses, recalling the brash Harlequin's famous assault on the French No 8 during a humdinger of a World Cup quarter-final in 1991.

Yet it was the youngster's much less public burial of Thomas that appealed to the true cognoscenti, not simply because it resulted directly in a try for Richard Hill, but because an off-balance Wilkinson had to make the tackle on the Welshman's terms, rather than his own.

Skinner, a big-hit specialist if ever there was one, would appreciate the distinction. He has dined out on the Cecillon incident for the best part of a decade, but he privately accepts there was less to that particular matter than met the eye. Indeed, he has far fonder memories of a monumental hit on the Wallaby flanker Simon Poidevin during the subsequent final at Twickenham.

"Cecillon was moving in slow motion, while Poidevin could not have been coming more quickly," he recalled some years later. "The only reason one got more publicity than the other was that the Cecillon tackle was visible to all while the Poidevin tackle was in the middle of some serious congestion."

For precisely the same reason, it is the Wilkinson-Ntamack collision that will take root in the popular memory. Every England player saw it happen and it lifted them at a time when they badly needed spiritual sustenance.

Interestingly, it also preyed on the minds of the Welsh as they prepared for their visit to Twickenham, to the extent that the Red Dragon hierarchy quietly expressed concerns about the legality or otherwise of Wilkinson's body armour. Asked after the game whether he had made official representations, David Pickering, the Welsh team manager, would only say that the stand-off's protective padding "was not the reason we lost". The evasive nature of his reply spoke volumes.

"I've been wearing body armour ever since I started playing senior rugby; in fact, I think I was in my last year at school when I first padded myself up," said Wilkinson at Twickenham this week as the squad gathered for today's historic meeting with Italy in Rome.

"Contrary to the views expressed by some people, I don't wear it because it gives me some feeling of invincibility and it doesn't allow me to tackle any harder than if I was wearing no padding whatsoever. Tackling is all about what you have in here" - he places his hand on his heart - "rather than what padding you're wearing. The padding doesn't do your tackling for you.

"What it allows you to do, over the long term, is put in more tackles than you might otherwise contemplate. You have to be realistic about this kind of thing. Rugby is a professional game, and it's my career. I have to look to the future, and that means staying as fit and healthy as possible. I already have a slight problem with my neck and sometimes, if I'm a little awkward in the tackle, I get pains in my shoulder. There is no way any player can constantly put in big hits on big people without suffering some sort of wear and tear and, if there is a way of minimising the damage, let's go for it.

"You must understand that the size and power of players performing at the top level is phenomenal."

Defence has become so central to Wilkinson's game that a missed tackle causes him as much anguish as a miscued penalty, a fluffed drop goal or a botched overlap. "Under the new rules, which have created a situation where your opponents can keep possession for very long periods of time, you have to stop people dead, and keep stopping them. It's no longer good enough to pull people to ground a couple of metres over the advantage line, because their support players will simply recycle the ball and go again. By the same yardstick, you can't just stand there and wait for your forwards to clear the ruck in front of you. If it's there to be cleared, you go in and clear it yourself.

"One of the great things about this England side is its flexibility. Mike Catt, Austin Healey, Matt Perry... they've all played top rugby in a variety of positions, and their versatility opens up all kinds of options and possibilities. I can happily involve myself in a ruck - well, perhaps not happily because it's pretty rough in there - without thinking to myself: 'If I disappear under a pile of bodies, who will take my place?' I know that Mike will do it, or if not Mike, Austin. It allows me to play much more on the edge. It's exciting."

So it has finally been established, after two years of considerable doubt, that Jonny Wilkinson, variously dubbed Young Father Time and Captain Sensible by those who consider the studied maturity of his approach to be almost unnatural in a stripling of his age, does indeed derive some excitement from playing rugby at international pitch. Perhaps we should have realised that the "nice cup of Horlicks and early to bed" image was not the whole story when the Boy Wonder ran a penalty just a few metres from his own line in the early stages of the Welsh match, when the contest was still very much alive. Will there be more of the same at Stadio Flaminio this afternoon?

"I certainly think it's important that we get into the game early, because it's so much harder to play catch-up," he said, the very soul of discretion once again. "If Italy start well, they will present a very difficult challenge. They have a kicking game of the highest class, thanks to Diego Dominguez, and they will be highly motivated up front. For us, this is France all over again, Wales all over again; it's a big step towards the title, another obstacle to get past. If we're not 100 per cent right in everything we do, we will pay the price."

But what about the excitement? Will England trip the light fantastic once again? Will it be party time in the Eternal City? Wilkinson yawned, not for the first time. "I'm looking forward to it," he acknowledged, eventually.

"I've never been to Rome." For all the enthusiasm in his voice, he might have said: "I've never been to Clacton."

But a decent win this afternoon, followed by a steady supply of grappa this evening, should cheer him up. There is a time and a place to be serious about rugby, and Saturday night on the Via Veneto is transparently not it.