Rugby Union: Wilkinson enters the cauldron

Five Nations: England's No 10-elect can expect a storming Scottish welcome as he stakes claim for World Cup role
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IF EVERYTHING goes to plan - and in Anglo-Scottish terms things have largely gone to plan for England from the moment Nigel Heslop scuttled over for a second-half try in Twickenham's south-west corner eight years ago - England will lay down two highly significant markers in retaining the Calcutta Cup for the umpteenth time this afternoon. They will establish themselves as odds-on favourites to win the 78th and final Five Nations' Championship and, in the process, unveil their outside-half for the real business of this calendar rugby year, the World Cup.

No, we are not talking Mike Catt here, although the Bath midfielder's high-octane versatility will pretty much guarantee him a place in the squad come October. The stand-off under debate - and he is very much a stand-off, regardless of the fact that he sports the No 13 shirt today - is Jonny Wilkinson, and at the risk of piling great steaming dollops of unwanted pressure on the poor petal, he is in the perfect position to bring all the recent "Stransky for England" buffoonery to an early conclusion. Clive Woodward might easily have selected the 19-year-old wunderkind in his optimum role for this game; indeed, were he still locked into the "sweet bird of youth" mindset that marked his first nine months or so as national coach, he would almost certainly have done so. But Woodward has wised up since he fed Wilkinson to 15 Wallaby-shaped wolves in Brisbane last summer.

An outing at inside centre behind a pack well capable of dominating both possession and territory is a far more sympathetic method of introducing a future general to the ranks.

There is nothing new in the kid-glove theory of selection. The Australians did something very similar with the 20-year-old Michael Lynagh back in the early 1980s; snugly sandwiched between the great Mark Ella and the ever-dependable Andrew Slack, the maestro in waiting was afforded the privilege of learning the international ropes at his own speed while laying the foundations of a kicking routine that would establish him as the most prolific points-gatherer in the history of Test rugby. As a centre, Lynagh contributed 44 points to the Wallabies' Grand Slam of Britain and Ireland in 1984. Within a year, he had moved into the green and gold No 10 on a very long lease.

Having over-hyped and over-faced Wilkinson last June, Woodward is understandably reluctant to make the same mistake twice. However, he still gets carried away whenever the Boy Wonder subject crops up in conversation.

"Even though he is still a teenager and starting a Five Nations match for the first time, we believe Jonny can cope with anything Scotland might throw at him," insisted the coach yesterday. "We're sure he can kick goals under pressure and, if the Scots target him to capitalise on his inexperience, we're confident he will cope with the ordeal."

Woodward's breathless enthusiasm was echoed by Jeremy Guscott, no less: "Jonny is a natural organiser; he's been telling us what to do all week," he said. Wilkinson was wearing short trousers to school and scurrying around the mini-rugby fields of his native south coast on a diet of orange squash and peanut butter sandwiches when the Bath legend made his first full Five Nations appearance for England, but there is no suggestion of any guv'nor- apprentice arrangement. Guscott knows a good 'un when he sees one.

Much of the fascination of this afternoon's contest surrounds the rival midfields, especially now that Gregor Townsend is back in his rightful outside-half position to load the bullets and create the space for John Leslie to wreak his Otago-style havoc. In fact, Leslie represents a substantial threat to Wilkinson's equilibrium; the New Zealand south islander was good enough to impale Gavin Hastings' Lions on the rough end of the pineapple back in 1993 and if his performance against Wales a fortnight ago was anything to go by, he has lost none of his potency.

For all that, England are not so much worried about the 15 Scotsmen on the field as the single tracksuited Borderer usually to be found prowling the touchlines. Jim Telfer knows more about this season's bouquet of red roses, from Jason Leonard in the front row to Nick Beal at full-back, than they know about themselves; on the 1997 Lions' tour of South Africa, he made it his business to work his way into the hearts and minds of two- thirds of this English team and, like the proverbial elephant, he forgets nothing.

"You don't have to remind me about the threat he poses," Lawrence Dallaglio, the English captain, said this week. "I have great respect for the things Jim does with a rugby team; he puts great emphasis on getting the basics absolutely right and he demands intensity from his players. That victory over Wales a fortnight ago had Telfer stamped all over it."

By the same yardstick Telfer needs no reminding that England hold all the aces, particularly in the first phase areas of scrum and line-out. The Scots will play a quick game this afternoon; they will ruck like wild things and crawl over their white-shirted foe like a rash. But England will have the ball and, at this level, the ball counts for everything.


at Twickenham

N Beal Northampton 15 G Metcalfe Glasgow Cal

D Rees Sale 14 C Murray Edinburgh Reivers

J Wilkinson Newcastle 13 A Tait Edinburgh Reivers

J Guscott Bath 12 J Leslie Glasgow Cal

D Luger Harlequins 11 K Logan Wasps

M Catt Bath 10 G Townsend Brive

M Dawson Northampton 9 G Armstrong Newcastle, capt

J Leonard Harlequins 1 T Smith Glasgow Cal

R Cockerill Leicester 2 G Bulloch Glasgow Cal

D Garforth Leicester 3 P Burnell London Scottish

M Johnson Leicester 4 S Murray Bedford

T Rodber Northampton 5 S Grimes Glasgow Cal

L Dallaglio Wasps, capt 6 P Walton Northampton

N Back Leicester 7 M Leslie Edinburgh Reivers

R Hill Saracens 8 E Peters Bath

Referee: D McHugh (Ireland) Kick-off: 2.30 (Sky Sports 2)