Six Nations 2014: Arrival of George Ford stirs memories of Jonny Wilkinson
Outside-half set for first taste of Test rugby against Ireland at Twickenham this weekend
If England and Ireland are within a score of each other deep in the final quarter at Twickenham this weekend, George Ford may have to wait just a touch longer for his first taste of Test rugby.
Stuart Lancaster, the red-rose coach, has been unusually bold in his blooding of newcomers since taking over the national team a little over two years ago, but not even he will be in a hurry to remove a street fighter like Owen Farrell from the fray if the outcome is still in dispute.
All things being equal, though, Ford will make an appearance in the white shirt of his dreams at some point on Saturday, thereby summoning memories of a fellow outside-half by the name of Wilkinson, who also announced himself as an international player against the Irish on the old cabbage patch in south-west London.
The parallel will not be exact: the teenage Jonny-boy was a couple of years younger than Ford when he materialised off the bench in 1998, and he found himself playing on the wing (hardly the natural position for a slowcoach, albeit an unusually gifted one).
But as England is full of rugby connoisseurs who believe Ford is blessed with the same rich potential, the temptation to bracket the two together is close to overwhelming.
The Bath midfielder, 21 next month, has been included in the match-day party for a fixture that could go a very long way towards deciding the destination of the Six Nations title: a well-earned promotion after near misses ahead of the recent matches in France and Scotland.
Brad Barritt of Saracens is the man cut from the squad – a clear signal that Lancaster and his fellow back-roomers are satisfied that Luther Burrell, the new outside centre, has come to terms with the demands of the No 13 position and no longer requires specialist back-up on the bench.
So England find themselves choosing between two sons of red-rose defence coaches. We can be sure of this much: Mike Ford, who was on the staff at the last two World Cups and is now in charge of his lad at the Recreation Ground, and Andy Farrell, currently Lancaster's principal lieutenant, will be under a spotlight of their own as the rivalry develops. Not that Farrell was buying it yesterday as he dealt with the subject in a "straight bat" style that would have had Geoffrey Boycott nodding with approval.
"In any walk of life, business or sport, there's always someone challenging you," he said. "Owen had it with Toby Flood; Tom Youngs is a Lions hooker and he has the same thing with Dylan Hartley. You can go through every single position. These players don't care about the hype. All they care about is training well and getting better so they can go out there and perform. It's pretty simple, really. If there's pressure on Owen, and there should be, it will be good for England. They're two good players who know each other's games inside out and have been best mates for a hell of a long time. They've helped each other to get where they are now."
Did he think Ford, who weighs in at a mere 13st 7lb, might be exposed physically if he takes the field against competitors as fierce as Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney – not to mention such rock-hard forwards as the in-form Munster flanker Peter O'Mahony? "I don't see George missing many tackles or shirking anything," the coach replied. "International level is a step up but smart players deal with the pace and intensity. We feel he's now comfortable in his own skin in this England set-up."
Scotland, currently about as comfortable as a fish in a tree, have made three changes for this weekend's bottom-of-the-table trip of torment to Rome, where Italy will start as favourites. Scott Lawson of Newcastle has claimed the hooking spot from Ross Ford, whose wonky line-out throwing against England did for him in selection, while the France-based lock Richie Gray comes into the second row for Tim Swinson. Meanwhile, the Edinburgh No 8 David Denton, the most energetic of the Scottish forwards on Calcutta Cup day, has lost out to Johnnie Beattie.
Priestland staying put: Scarlets extend deal
Rhys Priestland has given the Scarlets' "rugby community" a ringing endorsement by agreeing a contract extension with the Llanelli-based region.
The Wales fly-half, who is set to win his 28th cap in Friday's Six Nations home game with France, was among a group of top-flight Wales players identified for a possible Welsh Rugby Union national contract, but the 26-year-old has pledged his future to the Parc-y-Scarlets club.
"I am really pleased to have secured my contract with the Scarlets going forward and to continue my commitment to rugby in Wales," he said.
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