Rugby Union: Wilkinson bears comparison

The two No 10s in opposition for today's one-off Test are both international novices. Chris Hewett reports from Brisbane
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THEY have yet to play a match, but England's rugby tourists are finding salvation hard to come by under the sub-tropical winter sun of Queensland. Nervous and apprehensive were among the words and phrases uttered by the senior coaches, Clive Woodward and John Mitchell, as they weighed up the prospects for today's one-off Test with the Wallabies in Brisbane.

And no wonder. Not only will the tourists be looking to a fresh-faced threequarter line and a callow loose trio to man the barricades against a potent Australian outfit, but they will ask a mere boy, the 19-year- old Jonny Wilkinson, to organise matters from the fulcrum position of outside-half, a role he has not performed in any of his previous five minutes of international rugby.

Yet if England were seeking some sort of psychological sustenance as the build-up to the game slipped into overdrive yesterday, they could relax in the knowledge that, for all his lack of shaving kit, Wilkinson has far more experience of the pressures and traumas of life at No 10 than his opposite number, Stephen Larkham. Indeed, England's latest contribution to "yoof culture" is a positive greybeard by comparison with the gangling 24-year-old Brumby from downtown Canberra.

If Wilkinson is at stand-off by long cherished design, Larkham's move from full-back is entirely the idea of someone else, namely Rod Macqueen, the Wallaby coach. "I played there in the school and junior ranks, but that's about it," he admitted during a brief respite from intensive training in Caloundra this week.

"I don't suppose I've worn 10 on more than three occasions at senior level, but Rod has been pushing me in this direction for a couple of years now and he seems to be thinking in the long term. I don't mind the move - I don't really have any option but to look at it in a positive light - but I have asked for some time to settle in."

All of which should come as music to English ears. Australia has given rugby some of its very greatest play-making outside-halves, from Phil Hawthorne in the 1960s through to Mark Ella and Michael Lynagh of more recent vintage, but they are comprehensively stumped for a pivot right now. Elton Flatley, the next big thing as recently as last autumn, has already put a brilliant future behind him, leaving Larkham to shoulder the heaviest positional burden of them all.

Wilkinson, bless his youthful swagger, simply does not see it as a burden. A regular rugby player since turning up at Farnham RFC in a specially reinforced romper suit at the age of four and a specialist midfield architect from the moment he began running rings around under-13 opponents at the age of 10, he has harboured designs on the England shirt that matters most for longer than he cares to remember.

"I've spent virtually all of my senior career in the centre, so it has taken me a little while to reacquaint myself with the specifics of outside- half play," he said yesterday. "The last week of acclimatisation and training have been a great help, though, and I feel I'm back to my old ways.

"It's a big responsibility, I know, but I've basically been a stand-off all my life. I see this as my big chance; having been given the opportunity to start in my best position, I want to keep it that way."

Wilkinson's selection may owe everything to Paul Grayson's imminent fatherhood, Mike Catt's post-operative rehabilitation programme and Alex King's season- long injury frustrations, but Woodward has long seen him as worthy of the fast-track treatment. Apart from anything else he can kick like a mule, both out of hand and off the ground, both with his right peg and his left. According to Matt Perry, the versatile Bath back who plays at outside-centre today, he can switch hooves at the drop of a hat, depending on field position or wind direction.

Not that the great English rugby public have seen much evidence of that two-footed precocity. Wilkinson was good enough to split up the Va'aiga Tuigamala-Alan Tait midfield partnership as Newcastle launched their ultimately successful Allied Dunbar Premiership run-in back in March, but he could not shift the venerable Rob Andrew from the stand-off berth for love nor money. "It was a matter for the Newcastle management, as it will be again next season," he said.

"Quite simply, I'm happy to be in the team. The whole Newcastle experience has taught me a massive amount and while I'm younger that the guys around me, both at club and national level. I'm learning all the time. Rob phoned me on Thursday night actually, just to help me out on a few things I can expect to experience against the Wallabies. It was good of him, really helpful.

"Anyway, I'm none too keen on this 'Boy Wonder' stuff. I don't believe what I hear or what I read and neither do my friends and advisers, who are the people who really matter. As I see it, I've been selected by the England management because of what they've seen of me; they have a game plan for the Australians and I seem to be the one they consider best suited to it."

Woodward has attempted to lighten the load by asking Tim Stimpson to start as the goal-kicker, even though the big full-back has not taken aim in anger since well before Christmas. However, Stimpson will have to fire on his 1997 Lions cylinders to prevent the newcomer from lining up a shot at some point or other.