THE escalating Jonny Wilkinson debate spread across the Irish Sea yesterday and, like Martin Johnson, Ireland defence coach Les Kiss was effusive in his praise of the under-fire out-half.
Wilkinson has been in impressive form for his club Toulon this season but has failed to transfer that form onto the international stage, as was the case a fortnight ago against Italy in Rome.
Such has been the criticism of the number 10, once the golden boy of the British sports pages, that Johnson has accused some of his harshest critics of harbouring agendas.
That Kiss talked Wilkinson up was no surprise, of course.
Morgan Parra and Lionel Nallet may have tweaked Irish noses out of joint with their comments prior to the France-Ireland tie in Paris but they are very much exceptions to the rule.
That said, Kiss has always been a straight-talker, someone willing and able to dig deeper than the usual platitudes and sound bites and his dissertations on Wilkinson, and England in general, were no exceptions.
“I’d probably hop on the same message that Martin Johnson has been saying. It’s a bit harsh, some of the criticism. He’s a quality player and we’re expecting him to ramp up his game on the weekend. Not everything went to plan against Italy and they’ve admitted that. They’ll be going for a big one this weekend.
“He’s a threat across the park. We know that. We know he can put three points through the poles from the ground or from a drop-goal so we have to be careful with that. He’s managing the game very well, we think anyway.”
England are two-from-two so far in this campaign but they have done little to disabuse anyone of the notion that they remain a one-dimensional side led by a manager with a one-tracked rugby mind.
Kiss is one of those who would beg to differ. His argument that there is more to this England’s team’s ambition than meets the eye is centred on their back three of Delon Armitage, Mark Cueto and Ugo Monye.
Though he believes England will revert to their traditional strengths like the pick and drive tomorrow, he was equally quick to sound warnings about hidden running lines and the aim to play a more expansive game.
Much of that, he explained yesterday in Killiney, will also depend on the centre partnership of the well-travelled Matthew Tait, who finally seems to found a niche for himself in the team, and Riki Flutey.
“When you study it, they have some real subtle lines, what you might suggest are sometimes illegal blocking lines that come into play and take defenders out. So we’re going to have to work around some strategies in that area. Tait’s game has come on a lot. He probably hasn’t come to the fore in terms of a lot of people seeing his game.
“But, when you look at him, he’s a dangerous little addition to what Flutey can give you with his directness. Flutey has good footwork and he can run some nice block lines that can actually hurt your defence from the inside. We have to be aware of that and they have a good back three. We know they will try to exploit those wide channels at some stage.”
Maybe they will, maybe they won’t but all that will depend on how the forward exchanges pan out. Traditionally England’s area of greatest strength, even this sector hasn’t been immune from criticism in recent years.
Chief target for some time has been captain Steve Borthwick who has been almost lampooned by some critics claiming there is little to the lock’s game beyond his line-out ability.
Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal was quick to refute suggestions the Saracens forward is inconspicuous back on terra firma where, he claimed, Donncha O’Callaghan’s strengths will stand the visitors in good stead.
The Munster second row has been recalled to the team at Leo Cullen’s expense despite the fact that the Leinster captain has contributed handsomely to Ireland’s own lineout in the two matches so far.
“I said before that Leo did really well in the circumstances after being out for a long while,” Smal explained. “We’ve dissected the game in its finest detail and we think the selection is right for this game. I don’t like comparing players but I think this will be a closer game.
“There will be a lot of picking and driving, a lot of mauling, and that is one of Donncha’s strengths. Leo is also not bad there but I think those are Donncha’s best strengths. England might also keep it close to their pack, their strength. That is a strength for Donncha.”
* Ireland hooker Jerry Flannery’s appeal hearing against a six week ban will be held in London next Wednesday.
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