Rugby Union: Taste of the big time for Wilkinson

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And they call Michael Owen precocious. Clive Woodward, the England coach, yesterday launched his challenge for the 1998 John Prescott-Chumbawamba Award for services to youth culture by calling Jon Wilkinson into his training squad for the Five Nations game with Wales at Twickenham tomorrow week. Jon who? You may well ask.

For the benefit of the massed ranks of red rose supporters who would not know Wilkinson from Danbert Nobacon, England's latest outside-half prodigy has spent the last year or so understudying Rob Andrew at Newcastle. Like Owen, he is just 18. Unlike Owen, he has blazed a trail into the national squad without wasting valuable time proving himself at Premiership level. Indeed, he has made only six appearances for the title-challenging Geordies.

While Wilkinson has no realistic chance of facing the Welsh - if by some extraordinary turn of events he were to take the field, he would make Arwel Thomas look positively middle-aged - his temporary inclusion among the English elite still ranks as the mother of all fast-track promotions. There is method in Woodward's visionary madness, however, for the coach has long subscribed to the theory that the best young English talent should, whenever possible, be exposed to the unique atmosphere of a Test build- up.

"He'll join us for training on Tuesday, then link up with the Under-21s for their match with Wales at Worcester a week today," said Woodward, who has also recalled Andy Long, the Bath hooker prematurely capped against Australia last November before being dropped like a hot potato.

"These are the young guys it is important to highlight for the World Cup next year and while Wilkinson won't play for England this season unless there is a series of injuries to key players, if I were picking now for that competition, he would probably be involved."

There is no doubting Wilkinson's central role in the vanguard of the coming generation. He scored 38 points during the England 18 Group's junior Grand Slam last season and shone for the Under- 21s in their victory over France Youth in Mazamet a week ago. According to Dave Alred, England's kicking coach, he is already one of the most prodigious hoofers of a rugby ball in the British game.

Woodward has not restricted his baby-snatching to Wilkinson and Long, either. George Chuter, the 21-year-old Saracen, is one of four hookers in a 27-man squad bolstered by the return from injury of Richard Cockerill. Only Dorian West, Cockerill's deputy at Welford Road, has been omitted from the squad taken to Paris for last week's unsuccessful Five Nations opener with the French.

The Welsh, meanwhile, opted to declare their hand early by naming a starting line-up yesterday and it showed only one change from the side that beat Italy last weekend, Colin Charvis replacing Rob Appleyard on the blind- side flank. Charvis was within touching distance of selection for last summer's Lions tour of when he suffered a serious groin condition.

"Appleyard can count himself unfortunate but Colin brings the instincts of a ball-winning open-side to the short-side position and we can use his explosive power in both attack and defence," the Welsh coach, Kevin Bowring, said.

For a coach under no little pressure, Bowring sounded remarkably upbeat about his chances of masterminding a first Welsh victory at Twickenham since Adrian Hadley's two-try haul stopped the sweet chariot in its tracks precisely a decade ago. "I have a good deal of respect for the way Clive Woodward is trying to play the game, but there is quite obviously a doubt in English minds at the moment," he said.

ENGLAND SQUAD (Five Nations' Championship v Wales, Twickenham, 21 Feb) Backs: M Catt, M Perry (both Bath), D Rees (Sale), A Healey, W Greenwood (both Leics), J Guscott, P De Glanville (both Bath), P Grayson (Northampton), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens), M Dawson (Northampton). Forwards: J Leonard (Harlequins), D Garforth, G Rowntree (both Leics), P Vickery (Gloucs), M Regan (Bath), R Cockerill (Leics), G Chuter (Saracens), A Long (Bath), M Johnson (Leics), G Archer (Newcastle), D Grewcock (Saracens), L Dallaglio (Wasps), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leics), T Rodber (Northants), A Diprose (Saracens).

WALES: N Jenkins (Pontypridd); I Evans (Bath), A Bateman (Richmond), S Gibbs (Swansea), G Thomas (Cardiff); A Thomas (Swansea), R Howley (Cardiff, capt); A Lewis (Cardiff), B Williams (Richmond), D Young (Cardiff), G Llewellyn (Harlequins), M Voyle (Llanelli), C Charvis (Swansea), M Williams (Pontypridd), S Quinnell (Richmond). Replacements: W Proctor (Llanelli), L Davies (Cardiff), P John (Pontypridd), R Appleyard (Swansea), C Stephens (Bridgend), L Mustoe, J Humphreys (both Cardiff).