Wilkinson earns show of faith

England ignore injury record and opt for Toulon veteran ahead of Cipriani
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The Independent Online

Well, he did finish last season on top of one particular chart. Jonny Wilkinson only played 265 minutes of the 2008-09 campaign but he landed 13 place-kicks from 13 attempts, making him, on percentages at least, the No 1 boot boy in the Guinness Premiership. In fact, he showed a rich vein of form all round in his three-and-a-bit games for Newcastle Falcons – rich enough to persuade Martin Johnson to extend England's Elite Player Squad system across from Dover all the way down to the south of France yesterday.

In a stretch from previous Rugby Football Union policy, the England team manager has embraced both Wilkinson, who will be with Toulon next season, and the Lions centre Riki Flutey, who has moved from Wasps to Brive, in his 32-man senior squad for the 2009-10 campaign. As a consequence, there is no room for Danny Cipriani. Having finished the season on bench duty for England's second-string at the Churchill Cup, the precocious Wasps fly-half has been demoted to the 32-strong Saxons squad.

It would seem that the chart-topping Wilkinson is in pole position to claim the red rose No 10 shirt for the autumn internationals against Australia, Argentina and the All Blacks. The only other specialist fly-half in the senior squad is Toby Flood and he is expected to be out of action until November because of a ruptured Achilles. Flutey could provide cover at outside-half but Wilkinson will start his new club career in France with the carrot of a swift return to international duty – provided he can avoid suffering what would be a 16th major injury when he gets down to le crash, bang, wallop of the Top 14. The man who kicked England to World Cup glory in 2003 has turned 30 since he was last seen in action – for Newcastle against Gloucester at Kingsholm on 30 September last year, when he suffered a dislocated kneecap.

He won the most recent of his 70 England caps as a replacement centre in the 33-10 victory against Ireland at Twickenham in March 2008, with Cipriani dictating affairs from outside-half (and contributing 18 points). He started pre-season training with Toulon last week and is expected to make his debut for his new club next month.

While the Elite Player Squad system was designed to agree terms for the release of players between the RFU and Guinness Premiership clubs, Johnson and Rob Andrew, the English governing body's elite rugby director, have clearly gained suitable assurances from Toulon and Brive. "Rob Andrew and I have had extensive discussions with the French clubs who have recruited English players and these have gone well," Johnson said. The new entente cordiale has not helped Andy Goode, James Haskell, Tom May, Jamie Noon, Tom Palmer and Steve Thompson but Johnson said that the form and fitness of the French-based sextet would be monitored "with a view to inviting them to training sessions as appropriate."

Johnson's men: England squads

England elite player squad

Forwards S Armitage (L Irish), S Borthwick (Saracens), G Chuter, J Crane, T Croft, L Deacon (all Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), B Kay (Leicester), L Mears (Bath), T Payne, T Rees, S Shaw (all Wasps), A Sheridan (Sale), P Vickery (Wasps), J White (Leicester), D Wilson (Bath), J Worsley (Wasps).

Backs D Armitage (London Irish), M Banahan (Bath), D Care (Harlequins), M Cueto (Sale), H Ellis (Leicester), T Flood (Leicester), R Flutey (Brive), D Hipkiss (Leicester), P Hodgson (London Irish), U Monye (Harlequins), O Morgan (Gloucester), M Tait (Sale), M Tindall (Gloucester), J Wilkinson (Toulon).

England Saxons squad

Forwards R Blaze, D Cole (both Leicester), A Corbisiero, N Kennedy (both L Irish), C Lawes (Northampton), M Mullan (Worcester), T Mercey (Saracens), L Moody (Leicester), L Narraway (Gloucester), D Paice (L Irish), C Robshaw, W Skinner (both Harlequins), G Skivington, D Ward-Smith, R Webber (all Wasps), N Wood (Gloucester), B Woods (Leicester).

Backs N Abendanon (Bath), B Barritt (Saracens), D Cipriani (Wasps), B Foden, S Geraghty (both Northampton), T Ojo (L Irish), S Myler (Northampton), P Sackey, J Simpson (both Wasps), D Strettle, J Turner-Hall (both Harlequins), S Vesty (Leicester), D Waldouck (Wasps), R Wigglesworth (Sale), M Young (Newcastle).