Rugby World Cup 2011: Jonny Wilkinson feeling the pressure

By Matt SlaterSports news reporter

Former England fly-half Paul Grayson believes the pressure to win is the cause of Jonny Wilkinson's kicking problems, not the pressure of the ball.

Two England coaches have been suspended for switching the ball before Wilkinson took two conversion attempts against Romania last week.

Law 9.B.1 says all conversions must be attempted with the same ball that was touched down for the preceding try.

"As the pressure builds, things can get blown out of proportion," said Grayson.

"The Rugby World Cup is massive, everybody is looking for a spot in the team and trying to write their names in history.

"It's like a tennis player who picks a favourite ball from four identical ones - it's a psychological crumb of comfort.

"You know they are the same but you still have a favourite one because of its 'feel'.

"In over 20 years of kicking rugby balls I can count on one hand the number of times I've had a problem with a ball."

Wilkinson, the leading points scorer in Rugby World Cup history with 243, has struggled with the boot in New Zealand.

He missed five kicks in England's opening game against Argentina and was only slightly better in the third game, his second, against Romania. Both games were played under the roof of Dunedin's new Otago Stadium.

His 50% success ratio is significantly lower than the likes of South African Morne Steyn and Ireland's Ronan O'Gara. And Toby Flood, his rival for the England number 10 shirt, has made 75% of his kicks.

This uncharacteristic waywardness appears to have led England's backroom staff to come up with a bizarre plan to revive his kicking confidence.

Both teams are given access to eight match balls a day before the game in a "captain's practice". During this run-out, the kickers are allowed to try the balls and raise any concerns they have with them.

These balls are numbered and Wilkinson is reported to have said "number four" was his favourite. It was this ball kicking coach Dave Alred and fitness specialist Paul Stridgeon tried to switch for the one in play during the first half of England's 67-3 win over Romania.

If there was a problem with the ball, England could have brought it to the attention of referee Romain Poite but failed to do so. He was alerted to both switches and spoke to the England management about it at half-time.

This prompted the Rugby Football Unionexternal-link to conduct an internal investigation that resulted in Alred and Stridgeon being banned from even attending Saturday's crunch match against Scotland.

Grayson, a member of England's Rugby World Cup-winning squad in 2003, was reluctant to describe this as "cheating" but agreed somebody had "overstepped the mark".

"Rules are rules and everybody knows them," said Grayson, who is now assistant head coach at Northampton Saintsexternal-link.

"If you don't like a ball, you ask the referee. If he says it's okay, you get on with it."

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