Rugby Union: Woodward relies on Wilkinson

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The Independent Online
NOW THAT the Boy Wonder has grown a few hairs on his chest, England consider him properly equipped to mix it with the grown-ups. Jonny Wilkinson, yet to emerge from his teens but making a very decent fist of life in the man's world of the Allied Dunbar Premiership, will attempt to solve two of his country's most pressing problems at Twickenham this weekend when he makes his first Five Nations start against Jim Telfer's buoyant band of Calcutta Cup-hunting Scots.

Wilkinson fills the gaping hole in the red rose midfield by playing at inside centre - a big enough ask in itself, given that his immediate predecessors include Will Greenwood, the most influential threequarter in the country, and Phil de Glanville, the most astute defensive organiser in Britain. But there is more, far more. Newcastle's 19-year-old prodigy will also take over the goal-kicking duties from Matthew Dawson, whose occasional marksmanship just happened to earn England their famous victory over the world champions of South Africa 10 weeks ago.

"He's a talented player, Jonny, and he's in on merit," pronounced Clive Woodward, the England coach, as he revealed his hand yesterday. "As soon as I knew both Greenwood and De Glanville were unfit, I put the inside centre position at the top of my priority list and set about watching the contenders. Jonny plays a good 60 per cent of his Premiership rugby in the role and his defence is very strong indeed. I also took into consideration the fact that there is less pressure at inside centre than at outside- half. In terms of his development, this will stand him in very good stead."

In reality, though, Wilkinson's promotion has more to do with putting the funny-shaped ball between the sticks than his ability to knock opposition centres into the middle of the next millennium. Woodward backed Dawson's kicking to the hilt before the Springbok Test but, although the gamble worked for him on that occasion, it was never the most convincing of arguments. "It would have been asking a lot of Matt to do the job again," the coach conceded. "Jonny's kicking was a big factor in my decision."

According to Dave Alred, the specialist England coach who has worked closely with Wilkinson for three years, the new front-rank kicker has the potential to join the pantheon inhabited by the Ollie Campbells and Grant Foxes of rugby legend. "Is Jonny a natural kicker? There's no such thing in my book," he insisted. "Jonny is a worker, just as Campbell and Fox and Rob Andrew were workers. He has the right attitude, the self-motivation to get out there on a wet Thursday night and kick balls until he gets it right."

Eight months ago in Brisbane, Wilkinson got it very wrong. His two kicking failures against a rampant Wallaby side at the Suncorp Stadium did not exactly cost an embarrassingly half-baked England side the Test - he would have needed to chip over a good few penalties to cancel out the 11 tries registered by the opposition in the course of a record 76-0 victory - but the experience rocked him to his very bones and he admitted he still has not watched the tape.

However, the misery of that humiliation set him on a learning curve bordering on the vertical. "I came home from the southern hemisphere determined to make myself a better, stronger player. Yes, I was fearful that it would take an awful lot to get back into the England squad, but I've been given a hell of a lot more responsibility at Newcastle this season and it's worked out fine. My kicking is close to the 75 per cent success rate and I have no fears about doing the job on Saturday."

His highly educated right boot gives Woodward the chance to retain the half-back partnership that worked more then adequately against the Springboks, although Mike Catt has not been in the best of recent shape at stand-off and Dawson has been feeling the heat from Kyran Bracken, whose run of form at Saracens makes him the form scrum-half in Europe. "Matt is fully aware how well Kyran is playing, but it would have been hard on the team to impose a change at scrum-half without really having to," said Woodward. "It's a position I have no problem with, except for the fact that I always have to tell one world-class player that he isn't in the line-up."

Quite reasonably in the light of the Springbok triumph, Woodward has kept his changes to a minimum; indeed, there is only a single unenforced alteration, David Rees returning to the right wing in place of Tony Underwood. In the other obvious area of choice, Nick Beal of Northampton continues as full-back over and above Matt Perry, whose club form with Bath has been of the curate's egg variety. "In some areas, we've got strength coming out of our ears," said Woodward. It is now up to Wilkinson to add goal- kicking to that list.

ENGLAND (v Scotland, Five Nations' Championship, Twickenham, Saturday): N Beal (Northampton); D Rees (Sale), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), J Guscott (Bath), D Luger (Harlequins); M Catt (Bath), M Dawson (Northampton); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (all Leicester), T Rodber (Northampton), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: K Bracken (Saracens), P Grayson (Northampton), M Perry (Bath), D Grewcock (Saracens), G Rowntree (Leicester), N McCarthy (Gloucester).