Martin Johnson last night took a swipe at critics of England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson – and insisted the whole team must bear responsibility for the uninspiring performance against Italy.
Wilkinson’s position at fly-half has come under sharp focus since England’s laboured 17-12 victory in Rome, with Matt Dawson at the forefront of the criticism.
England’s World Cup-winning scrum-half claimed Wilkinson’s inability to manage a game and react to situations off the cuff is being exposed without experienced decision-makers around him.
Johnson stressed that no player is undroppable and he agreed England will have to improve before Ireland arrive at Twickenham on Saturday week.
But he said: “I don’t agree with the criticism. Jonny missed a few kicks and suddenly everyone is calling for his head, which I find pretty disappointing and surprising.
“No one is undroppable, no one ever has been. But is it Jonny’s fault we didn’t convert our line breaks? No, it’s a team thing.
“It has become the vogue to have a pop at Jonny. It is not always right or fair and I think some people are using it for their own agenda but that is the world we live in.”
Wilkinson, 30, has only ever been dropped twice by England – for Paul Grayson in the 1999 World Cup and for Danny Cipriani in the 2008 Six Nations.
And despite stating that no player is guaranteed his England place, Johnson gave no indication he was planning a change at fly-half.
Wilkinson’s understudy Toby Flood has been released to play for Leicester this weekend, having been the only unused replacement against Italy in a game crying out for an injection of fresh ideas.
The chief criticism aimed at England after the Italy game was centred on a lack of ambition as they became embroiled in tedious bouts of aerial ping-pong.
“This match highlighted again that he (Wilkinson) is not comfortable with the responsibility of being the team’s playmaker,” Dawson wrote in his column for the Daily Mail.
“He can play in the way that has been planned on a flip chart in team meetings but if it comes down to him to work out on the hoof what options to take, more often than not he will kick – and miss opportunities to attack.
“Jonny needs players around him – guys like Mike Catt, Will Greenwood, myself or Kyran Bracken – to take decisions, then he will execute them brilliantly.”
Whatever perceived weaknesses there may be in Wilkinson’s game, Johnson insisted that selection for any player has to be based on the whole package he brings to the team.
Wilkinson, who has won 75 caps for England, is the leading points scorer in the history of world rugby and his defence is arguably the best of any fly-half ever.
“You have players who are not in the team who are potentially better at some areas of the game than guys that are in the team. You have to weigh up that overall impact,” said Johnson.
“I think Toby has been playing well. We have good depth in that position. We are lucky to have two world class players at 10.”