Hill in line to return as Woodward defends Wilkinson

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The Independent Online

Clive Woodward, considerably less cranky than in the immediate aftermath of England's limp victory over Wales at the weekend, reported two pieces of good news yesterday. The first concerned Richard Hill, who has not figured in this tournament since tearing a hamstring during the opening pool match with Georgia, but is now an even-money bet to return to the starting line-up in Sunday's semi-final against France. The second concerned Jonny Wilkinson, who apparently played nowhere near as badly against the Welsh as the world and his wife seemed to imagine.

"Jonny was absolutely outstanding in defence," said the coach. "Did you see how many rucks he hit?" It was an interesting statement, to say the least, and before Woodward could be asked a pertinent follow-up question along the lines of 'Clive, are you really telling us you pick your outside-halves on the basis of their rucking ability?', he embarked on a long and determined defence of his shop-soiled star turn.

"He is completely different to any other outside-half in the world," he said. "He is not a Michalak, a Hougaard or a Spencer, and I for one do not want to change him. He is more aggressive in defence than any No 10 I've seen and once he starts on that track, it is sometimes necessary for another player to step in and support him in some of the other duties. I don't have an issue with that. To my mind, Wilkinson is a brilliant guy to work with and the best 10 in the game. I think he was awesome on Sunday."

Just a couple of points here. Wilkinson's goal-kicking is certainly impressive - he has rattled up 74 points in four tournament appearances to date, the last 23 of which allowed England to progress to the last four at the expense of Wales. But he does not score tries, certainly not in the volume we are accustomed to seeing from Frédéric Michalak, the brilliant young Frenchman, and Carlos Spencer, the livewire All Black. The fear must be that Wilkinson's rivals have not only raised the bar, but are playing an alternative, more adventurous and ultimately more threatening form of rugby.

It must also be a matter of concern to Woodward that England's best period against the Welsh coincided with the appearance of Mike Catt in the play-making role. England have not needed a second outside-half since Wilkinson first stamped some genuine authority on the pivot position in the 2000 Six Nations' Championship. The fact that Catt, out of international rugby for the best part of two years before being recalled for this competition, should suddenly emerge as England's tactical "guv'nor" does not support Woodward's deification of the younger man.

Catt will surely face the French from the start of the semi-final at the Olympic Stadium; on the basis of striking while the iron is hot, it is the logical move. As Woodward expects Will Greenwood to recover from the heavy blow to the head he suffered against the Welsh, the elegant Harlequins' co-centre, Mike Tindall of Bath, is in an exposed position on the selection front. Should Tindall be demoted to the bench, however, England will lose something in defence. The French are already salivating.

Hill's re-emergence as a World Cup contender is infinitely more positive than anything concerning the outside-half position. By common consent the outstanding blind-side flanker in the game - and, many believe, the most versatile loose forward to play at Test level since the retirement of the great All Black, Michael Jones - the accomplished Saracen could fill any of three back-row positions against the Tricolores. Yesterday, however, Woodward repeatedly referred to Hill as a No 6, thereby indicating a preference for a tried and trusted combination including Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back.

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