Wilkinson lifts English spirits

JONNY WILKINSON clocked up 1,000 points for England as he guided the World Cup finalists through a hazardous Italian job and revived their RBS Six Nations campaign.

Fly-half superstar Wilkinson, slammed in several quarters for his poor performance during the Twickenham implosion against Wales last weekend, booted three penalties and converted early tries by wing Paul Sackey and centre Toby Flood.

However, England coach Brian Ashton believes his team were never under serious threat against Italy despite the narrow 23-19 win in Rome yesterday.

Early tries by wing Paul Sackey and centre Toby Flood, as well as fly-half Jonny Wilkinson kicking 13 points to pass the 1,000-point mark, allowed England to secure their first RBS Six Nations triumph of the campaign.

However, England almost had their 20-6 interval lead wiped out as Italy cut the deficit to four points with four minutes remaining.

“We are quite happy to go away with the victory, even if we wanted to win by a better result,” said Ashton.

“Italy is not an easy place to play rugby. But at least we were able to get on the Six Nations scoreboard. I didn’t fear we were going to lose.

“At no stage was I on the sidelines thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, we are going to throw this away’.

“We finished the game on the Italian line. We learned from last weekend that games end in the 80th minute.”

Ashton saw no similarities between last weekend’s defeat by Wales at Twickenham and their clash against the Italians at the Flaminio Stadium.

England blew a 19-6 lead against Wales last weekend to lose by seven points. “I didn’t feel like we watched the same game,” he said.

“I think the Italian forwards stepped up their game at half-time and what we could not do was to establish field position and that is worrying.”

Ashton praised Wilkinson on reaching a milestone and explained the reason he substituted the Newcastle fly-half shortly after the hour mark.

“He broke the Six Nations record,” said Ashton. “He set up the first try and he did better than against Wales.

“It was always my intention to give Danny Cipriani some playing time and I know what you are going to say, ‘what a great substitution considering Cipriani’s kick was shut down (in what led to Italy’s only try of the game)’.

“But Cipriani has a lot of talent and has a long and successful international career in front of him.”

Ashton explained his reasons for selecting Steve Borthwick to replace Phil Vickery, who had a stomach bug, as captain.

“Given the circumstances of the late change, I just thought it was the best decision for the game,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a physical game and I felt it was important to have a leader in the front five.”

Italy coach Nick Mallett praised his team’s second-half performance.

“I don’t like to lose,” said Mallett. “But at 20-6 down at half-time, there was the possibility the team would have lost by a big margin.

“I am very happy with how my team played in the second half, we played far better rugby.”

However he was less impressed by his team’s start to the game.

“I was very frustrated because we gave away 14 points by committing two mistakes,” he said. “I think our lineouts have been worse here than in Ireland (last week).

“We have lost the last lineout in the game, which was a good chance for us to maybe do something important.”

Italy scorers: Tries: Picone. Cons: Bortolussi. Pens: Bortolussi 4.

ITALY: Bortolussi, Robertson, Canale, M. Bergamasco, Galon, Masi, Travagli, Lo Cicero, Ghiraldini, Castrogiovanni, Dellape, Del-Fava, Sole, M. Bergamasco, Parisse.

Replacements: Sgarbi for Canale (63), Marcato for Masi (73), Picone for Travagli (56), Perugini for Lo Cicero (52), Festuccia for Ghiraldini (63), Nieto for Castrogiovanni (60), Zanni for Dellape (73).

England scorers: Tries: Sackey, Flood. Cons: Wilkinson 2. Pens: Wilkinson 3.

ENGLAND: Balshaw, Sackey, Noon, Flood, Vainikolo, Wilkinson, Gomarsall, Payne, Regan, Stevens, Shaw, Borthwick, Haskell, Lipman, Easter.

Replacements: Cipriani for Wilkinson (67), Wigglesworth for Gomarsall (60), Mears for Regan (59), Kay for Shaw (77), Narraway for Easter (65).

Ref: Alain Rolland (Ireland).

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