Twickenham farewell for Wilkinson? Not if he has anything to do with it
Jonny Wilkinson has been playing second fiddle to Toby Flood for more than a year now – a fact that has led many observers to conclude that next month's World Cup in New Zealand will signal the end of the injury-ravaged horizontalist's extraordinary international career. If this comes to pass, it will not be of Wilkinson's choosing. He intends to keep on keeping on, despite the England hierarchy's hard-line stance on players committing to club rugby abroad.
"Either someone will close the door, or it will close naturally," the World Cup-winning outside-half said yesterday, shortly after being confirmed in the starting line-up for tomorrow's warm-up game with Wales at Twickenham – his first appearance in the run-on team since the drawn Calcutta Cup game at Murrayfield in the spring of 2010. "All I know is that the closing won't be done by me. I feel in good shape and I want to improve my game. If I'm not doing that here in this environment, I guess I'll be saying the same things elsewhere, to fewer people."
Wilkinson signed a contract extension with Toulon, the French Top 14 club, midway through last season and there is every possibility that he will stay on the Mediterranean for the duration. If England dig in their heels and pick exclusively from the Premiership once the World Cup is over, this will almost certainly be his last Twickenham appearance.
The selection for tomorrow's hit-out is intriguing: the return of the troublesome full-back Delon Armitage gives the back three a fresh look and there is an untested midfield combination, together with a freshly minted front-row unit featuring the fast-improving Alex Corbisiero, the increasingly influential Dylan Hartley and the resurgent Matt Stevens. As expected, the Japan-bound James Haskell gets a start at No 8 ahead of Nick Easter, who will travel to All Black country as an undisputed first choice in dire need of a serviceable deputy.
Wales are at strength. Leaving aside the absence of James Hook at No 10 – Stephen Jones, one of the world game's genuine good guys, wins his 101st cap, establishing himself as the most decorated player in the history of the sport in the Principality – the back line could stay together for the daunting meeting with South Africa in Wellington on 11 September. The back five of the scrum also looks useful, with Toby Faletau the only relative newcomer at No 8.
"I think it's going to be a full-on Test match," said the head coach, Warren Gatland, who would give his eye teeth to put one over England this close to a global tournament. "The guys are in great shape physically, there is a huge amount to play for and there will be no lack of motivation. We're expecting to play pretty well."
And Gavin Henson, a notable non-starter? "He's no more special than anyone else when it comes to the squad," Gatland replied. "If he gets a chance, he gets a chance. If he doesn't, he doesn't." So there.
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