Wilkinson strikes to save pride of Lions

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The Independent Online

The last time Jonny Wilkinson touched the ball in an international match, he dropped the goal that won a first World Cup for England. For long periods in Cardiff last night, he must have wondered whether it might not have been better to have called it quits in Sydney and taken early retirement. Facing one of the least experienced Argentinian teams to play at Test level - by common consent, they fielded only three obvious first-choicers - the Lions geared down for their forthcoming trip to All Black country with one of the more desperate performances in red-shirt history.

After dominating the first half, largely through the sweat of their hugely committed forward pack and the magnificent kicking of Federico Todeschini, the Pumas dug in with all their heart and soul - their bravery was remarkable, not least that of their industrious scrum-half Nicolas Fernandez Miranda - and flatly refused to behave themselves. They out-scrummaged the Lions for the most part, they mauled with their customary vigour and only showed signs of creaking when Wilkinson, Shane Williams and the ever-imaginative Geordan Murphy ran at them. Finally, the Lions were reduced to asking Wilkinson to land a penalty with the last kick of the game, to earn a draw.

The best part of the Lions' early contribution to the evening was the first public rendition of their so-called "anthem" - for any tone-deaf folk who might be interested, it is called "The Power of Four". If the New Zealand-bound tourists were not fumbling the ball, they were fiddling around with it in a fog of structureless confusion. Indeed, the Pumas were excellent value for the lead they established almost immediately.

Todeschini, a 29-year-old journeyman of an outside-half currently playing his club rugby in France, had already chipped over a penalty awarded against Lewis Moody for some indisciplined groping at a ruck when his fellow midfielder, the captain Felipe Contepomi, took advantage of some typically butterfingered handling by the Lions to create the least fussy of tries down the right for Jose Nunez Piossek. Todeschini converted from the touch-line - he was almost Wilkinsonesque in his accuracy - and then increased the gap to 13 points with a mighty hoof from long range.

Only 15 minutes had passed, but the Lions were already in need of salvation - not the most encouraging of signs, given the rigours that lie ahead of them over the next seven weeks. Wilkinson had already done his best to generate some momentum by supporting a dangerous cross-field run from Denis Hickie, and although he was duly turned over at the all-important ruck, he immediately made amends by stopping the bullish hooker Mario Ledesma dead in his tracks. His team needed more, though, and he duly provided it.

In the 17th minute, he flummoxed the Puma back-line completely with a show-and-go routine that resulted in a bullocking try for Ollie Smith, the young Leicester centre.

Todeschini kept the visitors ahead with siege-gun marksmanship, but the Lions were in the game, and three more penalties from Wilkinson left them only 16-19 adrift at the interval.

Wilkinson was heavily involved again when, after another prolonged period of pantomime rugby from the best these islands have to offer, he found himself on the end of a decent pass out of contact from Martin Corry and quickly launched Graham Rowntree towards the Pumas' 22. There were all sorts of options open, options that dried up when sundry Lions were hauled back by their shirts, but the three points from the inevitable penalty were pretty much guaranteed. At last, the favourites were level.

Worryingly for them, that parity lasted all of five minutes. Julian White, the tough Leicester prop, was called from the bench to replace John Hayes, and conceded a penalty at a scrum. Needless to say, Todeschini did the needful. What was more, he did it again after 58 minutes, landing a right-sided kick to re-establish the six-point difference.

Again, it was down to Wilkinson to find an answer, for few others appeared to understand the question, let alone offer a solution. He won a penalty for his side when he scampered into the soft underbelly of the Argentinian defence and collected a forearm around his windpipe from Federico Genoud, and on rising, he delivered the oxygen of three more points. The Lions were still adrift though, and despite showing some conviction by ignoring late penalty opportunities in favour of attacking line-outs, they could not summon a second try. In the end, they gave it up as a bad job and turned to Wilkinson's left boot again. Had he failed with his final fling, the humiliation would have been complete.

British Isles: Try Smith; Conversion Wilkinson; Penalties Wilkinson 6

Argentina: Tries Nunez Piossek; Conversions Todeschini; Penalties Todeschini 6.

BRITISH ISLES: G Murphy (Leicester & Ireland); D Hickie (Leinster & Ireland), O Smith (Leicester & England), G D'Arcy (Leinster & Ireland), S Williams (Neath-Swansea Ospreys & Wales); J Wilkinson (Newcastle & England), G Cooper (Newport-Gwent Dragons & Wales); G Rowntree (Leicester & England), S Byrne (Leinster & Ireland), J Hayes (Munster & Ireland), D O'Callaghan (Munster & Ireland), D Grewcock (Bath & England), M Corry (Leicester & England), L Moody (Leicester & England), M Owen (Newport-Gwent Dragons & Wales, capt). Replacements: J White (Leicester & England) for Hayes, 50; C Cusiter (Borders & Scotland) for Cooper, 59; S Horgan (Leinster & Ireland) for Smith, 62; S Thompson (Northampton & England) for Byrne, 70; B Kay (Leicester & England) for Grewcock, 71.

ARGENTINA: B Stortoni (Bristol); J Nunez Piossek (Castres), L Arbizu (Bayonne), F Contepomi (Leinster, capt), F Leonelli Morey (La Tablada); F Todeschini (Beziers), N Fernandez Miranda (Hindu); F Mendez (Mendoza), M Ledesma (Castres), M Reggiardo (Castres), P Bouza (Duendes), M Sambucetti (Brive), M Schusterman (Plymouth Albion), F Genoud (Los Tordos), J M Leguizamon (SIC). Replacements: S Sanz (CASI) for Genoud 71; M Carizza (Jockey Club, Rosario) for Sambucetti, 74; L Lopez Fleming (SIC) for Todeschini, 74.

Referee: S Dickinson (Australia).

* The All Blacks winger Joe Rokocoko may lose his place for the forthcoming three-Test series between New Zealand and the British and Irish Lions after being overlooked for next month's trial match. Rokocoko has been struggling form-wise, and has been ordered to return to the national sevens squad, where he began his international career, in order to rebuild confidence.

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