Wilkinson sure he can come back stronger

After six long years battling injury, the England stand-off is among the few players in peak fitness for the autumn internationals – and he's raring to go
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The Independent Online

Things have come to a pretty pass on the injury front when Jonathan Peter Wilkinson – also known as Mr Collapso or Horizontal Harry – is one of the last men standing rather than the first man down. Whenever England have found themselves suffering from a serious outbreak of unavailability over the last half-dozen years, the man who dropped the goal that won the 2003 World Cup has routinely appeared at the top of the list. Suddenly, it is as though he is made of something indestructible. Weird.

"It's a funny thing," the stellar stand-off agreed yesterday after surviving another red-rose training session ahead of the highly significant meeting with the touring Wallabies at Twickenham in eight days' time. "There was a stage when I found it difficult to break out of the cycle of injury. Why is it different now? I have no real explanation for why things have turned round for me. Apart from changing clubs, I haven't been doing anything different."

Might it be a combination of the French air and liberal quantities of Provençal red? Hardly. This is Wilkinson we're talking about, not Jason Leonard. However, there can be little doubt that his summer move from Newcastle (cold, wet) to Toulon (warm, dry) has perked him up no end. "They play their rugby in a pretty physical fashion down there," he said, "and it's been a hell of an experience, that's for sure. But operating in a different culture and having to search for the connections between things that allow me to work out what's going on has been really valuable.

"Since I first suffered serious injury problems after the World Cup victory, I've been trying to recapture that second-nature feel for the momentum of a game. I feel I'm moving towards it now. As always, I'm concentrating on being the best I can be on any given day, wherever I happen to be playing. But to be back here in these familiar surroundings, in an England environment as welcoming and supportive and challenging as this one, is very special. There were times when I feared it might not come my way again."

All this is manna from heaven as far as Martin Johnson and the England coaches are concerned. Johnson the manager is not noticeably different from Johnson the captain when it comes to praising individuals – he would sooner eat his own feet than single people out – but there was no mistaking his relief at having the 30-year-old stand-off fit and available for the forthcoming Test series, which also features fixtures with a dangerous Argentina and a bristling New Zealand.

Pressed on whether he had dropped to his knees and thanked the Almighty for the gift of Wilkinson, he grimaced slightly before replying in that deadpan way of his: "You always miss world-class players when they aren't there." And what did he expect him to bring to the team over these next few testing weeks? "It's a matter of what he is," he said. "That's the easiest way of putting it."

At one point yesterday, Wilkinson was heard to utter the phrase "if selected" in connection with himself. The man is too modest by half. If Johnson picks another No 10 to go toe to toe with the brilliant Matt Giteau next weekend – Andy Goode, say, or the gifted young Northampton midfielder Shane Geraghty – the rugby world will spin off its axis with shock. The long and short of it is that Wilkinson is back, probably for some time. Always assuming his return to this side of the Channel does not provoke another breakdown of the orthopaedic variety.

Did he believe he had changed in any significant fashion since his last appearance in the white shirt, off the bench against Ireland in 2008? "Perhaps I'm trying to use a bit more of my wisdom, if I have any," he responded. "For example, I now understand the importance of picking and choosing my times to make a tackle, although it's still not in my nature to leave things in the changing room for a rainy day, to hold things back for next week; certainly, I still feel a player puts himself in a dangerous area if he starts leaving all the tackles to someone else. I want to use up the same amount of energy as I ever did, to give it everything I have. It's just that I also want to be in the right positions, doing the right things.

"But the most important thing to emphasise – and I always push this message as hard as I can – is that rugby is never about one player, be he a prop, a second-rower, a No 8, a captain, a vice-captain, a new boy or anyone else. We rise together and we take the falls together. That's the way it has to be." So the old "it's all right now, Jonny's back" refrain doesn't wash, then? "Whenever I've heard that in the past," he said, with a wan smile, "it's never quite worked out, has it? Just funny little cameos, then more lay-offs."

With Harry Ellis of Leicester among the many injured, Wilkinson's likely partner at half-back is the little Harlequins scamperer Danny Care. Both men were on catwalk duty at the team hotel in Surrey, modelling England's new change strip – a natty purple arrangement that burnt into the irises of all but the most profoundly colour-blind. Care was also sporting a good deal of tape on his left hand, proof that he had picked up a finger injury. Johnson swore he would be fine for the Wallaby date.

"I remember thinking Mike Catt was old at 28, and I'm past that now," Wilkinson said, referring to one of his midfield partners from the glory days of 2003. "Back then, I was happy to have people like him and Matt Dawson around me. But when I look at the younger players in this squad and consider how much responsibility they take on for their clubs at Premiership level – Danny at Quins, Shane at Northampton – I know I won't be the only one giving this team its direction."

French leave: Life in Toulon

* Jonny Wilkinson ended a 12-year spell at Newcastle Falcons when joining Toulon in May.

* The fly-half made his debut in a 22-22 draw against Stade Français in August, scoring 17 points. He has started nine of 12 matches this season, and one sub appearance. His inclusion has proved influential – two of Toulon's four defeats this campaign have been in matches Wilkinson has not started.

* He was named Top 14 player of the month for September and is the league's second highest scorer on 95 points – behind Clermont's Brock James (102) – scoring 23 penalties, 18 conversions and four drop goals.

* Toulon sit in sixth place (a Heineken Cup position) in the Top 14 league with 26 points from 10 games, seven points behind the leaders Castres.

James Mariner

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