Wales coach backs Wilkinson to shine

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The Independent Online

Wales assistant coach Rob Howley expects Jonny Wilkinson to be "a huge cog" in the England machine for this season's RBS 6 Nations Championship.

Wilkinson, who was on the losing side when Wales last visited Twickenham two years ago, poses a huge threat to Welsh ambitions of repeating that result in 11 days' time.



And the measure of his threat is not lost on Howley who, as a former Wales scrum-half, played against England's record points-scorer and fly-half tactician four times in Five or Six Nations combat.



"He has got world-class basics of the game," said Howley.



"He has a mental toughness tougher than many players I played with, and his kicking is second to none - the statistics show that.



"He's an integral part of the England set-up. I have no doubt he will be a huge cog with England, and I have no doubt he will start against us."



England will go into the Six Nations after making a pitiful assault on this season's Heineken Cup.



Northampton are England's sole quarter-final survivors from seven starters, while two sides - Bath and Harlequins - recorded just one win between them in 12 games.



The final overall pool placings show Northampton were eighth, Gloucester 10th, Leicester 13th, London Irish 14th, Sale Sharks 15th, Bath 19th and Quins 22nd.



In contrast, France produced four quarter-finalists, and in addition to the Ospreys clinching a last-eight place, Wales also produced two Amlin Challenge Cup qualifiers - Cardiff Blues and the Scarlets.



It all represents England's worst Heineken Cup performance in the 14 seasons they have entered it.



Reflecting on Welsh achievements in Europe, Howley added: "It has been a good couple of weeks.



"The Ospreys have delivered in Europe, the Scarlets produced the goods in Brive and the Blues delivered at Quins a week after beating Sale.



"But we have all played in England versus Wales games, and it is what happens in those 80 minutes that count.



"Our players will have gained a huge amount of confidence and self-belief, but they know it's a different game in two weeks' time.



"The Heineken Cup is an important barometer, and the players have had a good hit-out in that. Our sole focus now is England.



"You win your first game in the Six Nations, and the momentum is with you. This is a big first game."



Wales boss Warren Gatland is due to name his team for Twickenham next Sunday evening, with the only real debates appearing to be at centre and scrum-half.



British Lions star Jamie Roberts is expected to pin down one midfield berth, and Gatland must decide whether to hand the multi-talented James Hook a role alongside him, stick with in-form Scarlets prospect Jonathan Davies or recall Tom Shanklin.



The real issue is at number nine though, where Lions Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel are both injured, leaving Gatland to choose between Gareth Cooper, Martin Roberts - who has never started a Six Nations Test - or the uncapped Richie Rees.



Lions full-back Lee Byrne and prop Adam Jones, meanwhile, are both expected to return after sitting out this season's autumn Tests through injury.



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