Oval Talk

Time’s up for joyless Jonny

Oval Talk

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England stuttered badly again last week as they stumbled to victory over Italy in Rome, and Oval Talk believes Jonny Wilkinson is a significant part of the problem.

It has been five games now since Wilkinson returned to the England fold following his last comeback from long-term injury.

Things have not gone well in that time.

Let's face it: they have gone poorly, and it is time for England to look beyond their 2003 World Cup winner for answers to their dreadful form.

Step forward Danny Cipriani.

Talk last summer was that Wilkinson was fitter and faster than before, and that his move to the sunny climes of Toulon had given him a Zen-like karma, a new approach to the game.

Jonny Mk 2 was meant to be chilled, and free from his mental demons, both on the pitch and off it.

OT is far from convinced.

If anything, Wilkinson has been even more conservative in his approach for England. Apart from one or two early signs in the emphatic defeat by Australia, there has been zero evidence that he is the accomplished footballer England need to free up their backs.

The Celts always suspected it, but myopic England fans refused to believe it while their 2003 team rode to glory under then skipper Martin Johnson.

Wilkinson played a huge part in a very successful team, but he needed everything to be in place - including leaders inside and outside him - for him to make his mark.

Wilkinson is not a footballer in the mould of James Hook; rather he is an automaton whose talent derives mostly from a freakish work ethic and limitless levels of bravery.

It would be harsh to call Wilkinson a one-trick pony, but at present he is little more than a two-trick pony: he can kick his goals, and he can tackle - though even the former is open to doubt after his uncharacteristic misses at the Stadio Flaminio.

In the latest chapter of Wilkinson's international career, England have won three and lost two. Not a bad return for a team still trying to find their feet (how much longer are we going to have to use 'still'?)

In those games, Wilkinson has kicked 53 of his side's 78 points, at an average of 10.6 per game. Again, a decent enough contribution, though who is to say another fly-half would not also have landed those kicks?

A less impressive statistic is that England average just one try per game in that time, and it is abundantly clear that their back-line has been stilted, unambitious and riddled with doubt under his stewardship.

Jonathan Davies knows a thing or two about fly-half play and the Welsh legend has long believed Wilkinson's best days are behind him.

England had a few decent moments against Wales, but mostly Johnson's side are boring to watch - or even more boring than usual, if you believe the Aussies, Celts and Kiwis.

And one of the reasons they are boring is because they do not have a natural footballer pulling their strings - a half-back who is happy to take the ball lying flat, has a decent turn of speed, an eye for a gap, and the ability to play what's in front of him.

Furthermore, Wilkinson has become a poor tactical kicker, an aspect of the game that has become increasingly important since defences gained the upper hand.

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Cipriani admittedly has some way to go to match Wilkinson's remarkable defence; what he does have though is natural talent, the ability to play on the gain line and give England some go forward in midfield.

The fact Cipriani formed a dynamic partnership with Riki Flutey when they were team-mates at Wasps should also work in his favour for an England recall.

For reasons well documented, Cipriani has failed to convince the England management that he currently has the attitude or application to hold down the number 10 jersey.

Injuries clearly have not helped, and Wilkinson, Toby Flood and Andy Goode have all been selected ahead of him in one form or another under Johnson's reign. The highly-talented yet discarded Shane Geraghty also appears higher up the pecking order.

But despite what management say, England have made little to no progress in the last year - and certainly none since Wilkinson reclaimed his place in the autumn.

OT fears for how they will go at Twickenham against an Ireland team smarting from defeat, while their trip to Paris for their final Six Nations match against a formidable France could well make or break Johnson's career.

Clearly, not all of England's ills can be laid at Wilkinson's feet.

He is, however, a big part of the problem. It is time someone else was given a chance.

By all means keep Wilkinson in the match squad and bring him on if things are not going well.

But the best way forward for this England team is to recall Cipriani, give the youngster his head and allow him to reignite their back play.

Risky? Maybe, but anything is better than the joyless fare in Rome.

And let's be honest: what have they got to lose?

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