Rugby Union: Wilkinson in place for win double

England's rugby union ambitions rely on a precocious survivor of a humiliation in Brisbane. By Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online
IT IS something like 54 weeks since Jonny Wilkinson last played a match in Australia, an experience that left the most talked-about teenager in the history of English rugby wondering whether he might be better off spending his time rollerblading and listening to Oasis with the rest of his sixth-form peer group. How the boy has grown. One Five Nations' Championship and a Twickenham cup final on from the event that might easily have wrecked his confidence for good, he brings such purpose and direction to his country's midfield that his place in this autumn's World Cup is no longer a matter for debate.

The Newcastle stand-off has not had it all his own way these past 12 months or so; the straightforward little nine-iron of a conversion he missed against Wales in April was one of the factors that cost England a Grand Slam and his unusually tentative cup final performance against Wasps did not exactly threaten Barry John's place in the pantheon. All the same, Wilkinson has shown enough since Christmas to suggest that he is at least capable of giving the Wallabies a taste of their own poison in Sydney next weekend.

"Last June in Brisbane was a step into the unknown, but it's very different now," he said yesterday as he completed his preparations for tomorrow's Test warm-up with Queensland at Ballymore. "The things we've put together during three weeks of training give us a much better chance of doing ourselves justice when we take on the Wallabies."

Given that Wilkinson found himself on the painful end of a 76-zip shellacking this time last year, his comments proved, as if proof were necessary, that England were certifiably crazy to embark on their laughably half- baked 1998 tour of the southern hemisphere with a squad fresh out of playschool.

Wilkinson will not turn 20 until a week today, but he successfully completed his rite of passage as an international midfielder during the spring by braving the fires of an unexpectedly competitive Calcutta Cup match, a rumble with the Irish in Dublin and a chapter of "Le Crunch" against the French at Twickenham and barely missing a kick at goal in 240 minutes of Five Nations rugby. Now that Clive Woodward, the England coach, has made his World Cup intentions obvious to all by handing his most precocious talent the No 10 shirt, it is up to the man-child to call the shots as he sees them.

"I enjoyed playing through the Five Nations as an inside centre; there was plenty of pressure around because I was taking the kicks, but I was spared the particular demands of the stand-off position," he said. "Now that I'm wearing 10, I have to meet those demands. But even though Mike Catt and I have swapped places, I think you'll see a fair bit of fluidity. In today's rugby, you can't play with a single outside-half and two running centres. It's all about having two outside-halves at 10 and 12, two good communicators who can make decisions and play the game as it unfolds in front of them. I'd like to think Mike and I will form the sort of relationship where we're both happy to play it off the cuff.

"Certainly, I'm very positive about the move. After last year's tour I knew my career had suffered a significant setback and understood that I would have to put in a lot of hard work to re-establish my status as an England player. It's happened more quickly than I thought it might and I'm delighted to be able to say that. I never thought that an England place was out of reach, not even in the immediate aftermath of the Brisbane defeat, but I wasn't sure I'd find my feet straight away. I've learned a lot over the last 12 months: I'm aware that things can go wrong, but I'm also aware that with the proper attitude, I can put things right."

Only three survivors of Brisbane '98 will start against Queensland tomorrow, Matt Perry and and Richard Cockerill joining Wilkinson in a line-up that may well stay together for next Saturday's Centenary Test at Stadium Australia, the new Olympic centrepiece capable of holding well over 100,000 spectators. Perry, an ice-cool youngster very much in the Wilkinson mould, also draws the sharp distinction between last summer's pre-pubescent, lambs-to-the- slaughter party and this summer's collection of been-there-and-done-it grown-ups.

"Just looking around you and seeing guys who have 50 or 60 caps in the locker sends confidence filtering through the whole squad," agreed the Bath full-back, who managed to fly in the face of logic by emerging from last year's trauma trip with an enhanced reputation. "We just didn't have that confidence last year and it showed; we were trying to chase shadows without knowing how to go about it."

This unfamiliar Queensland side, shorn of 11 Wallabies and lacking the know-how that world-class operators like John Eales and Tim Horan bring to the party, will not prove anywhere near as elusive to Perry and company; indeed, England will be disappointed, if not devastated, by anything less than a 20-point winning margin. As Martin Johnson, their captain, pointed out yesterday: "Our World Cup training camp is over and done with. From now until the end of next week, it's all about winning two games of rugby."