Johnson keeps faith with Wilkinson

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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson has been retained in an unchanged England team for Saturday's RBS 6 Nations showdown with Ireland at Twickenham, despite concerns over his form and fitness.

The Toulon fly-half was criticised for his lack of attacking ambition following England's one-dimensional 17-12 victory over Italy 10 days ago.



Wilkinson missed training yesterday with "muscle tightness" - but he has withstood pressure from Toby Flood to be entrusted once again as England's playmaker.



The only changes to the match 22 are on the bench with the return of flanker Joe Worsley, who has recovered from a knee injury, in place of Steffon Armitage.



Hooker Lee Mears has replaced Steve Thompson and full-back Ben Foden returns in place of prop Matt Mullan as England revert to a four-three split on the bench.



By naming an unchanged starting team, Johnson has given a vote of confidence not only to Wilkinson but to the side that underperformed in Rome.



Wilkinson bore the brunt of the criticism after England had engaged in long periods of aimless kicking when there were clear signs that Italy could not cope with a high-tempo running game.



Matt Dawson, Wilkinson's World Cup-winning team-mate, claimed his inability to manage a game was being exposed without key leaders alongside him.



Johnson watched Flood - a more natural runner and distributor of the ball - play a key role in Leicester's victory over Gloucester at the weekend.



But Johnson indicated as early as last week that a change was not on the cards, when he launched into a vigorous defence of Wilkinson's all-round contribution.



Whatever his perceived weaknesses, Wilkinson is the leading points scorer in world rugby and is arguably the toughest defensive fly-half ever to play the game.



Wilkinson made his England debut as a replacement in this same fixture 12 years ago.

Johnson insisted he had no doubts about retaining Wilkinson at fly-half - and he reiterated the problems in Italy were a team responsibility.

"Everyone is pointing fingers at Jonny but it is a team issue," said Johnson.



"We had a good chat about it as a group about where we need to improve. There were chances we missed last week. We were effective when we kept the ball in hand."



Mears has been included in an England squad for the first time since last year's Six Nations after missing the summer tour because he was with the Lions and the autumn through injury.



"Lee is back in good form after his injury and he gives us something a bit different off the bench with his ball-handling and his dynamism," said Johnson.



"Ben Foden is back on the bench. We made a specific call for last week with three front-rowers.



"That limits your options a bit and I said to Ben after the game last week it would have been nice to have him come on for the last 10 minutes against Italy.



"It is good to have him back on the bench."



Ireland come to Twickenham looking to pick up the pieces after having their Grand Slam defence shattered by a 33-10 loss to France in Paris.



Johnson added: "Ireland are coming off a tough loss in a difficult place to play. They will want to bounce back and put a good performance in - but so do we.



"We want to improve on last week. We are not replaying that game, this is a new game and we need to approach it that way."





England team to play Ireland in the RBS 6 Nations Championship at Twickenham on Saturday, February 27; kick-off 4pm:

D Armitage (London Irish); M Cueto (Sale Sharks), M Tait (Sale Sharks), R Flutey (Brive), U Monye (Harlequins); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, captain), J Haskell (Stade Francais), L Moody (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins).



Replacements: L Mears (Bath), D Wilson (Bath), L Deacon (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), P Hodgson (London Irish), T Flood (Leicester), B Foden (Northampton).

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