Six Nations awaits comeback kid Wilkinson

England's introspective idol returns eager to make up for lost time in partnership with League great Farrell
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The Independent Online

Outside-half has long been the ultimate decision-making position on a rugby field. As of last Sunday, when the England head coach Brian Ashton asked some bloke by the name of Wilkinson whether he felt fit and able to resume his red-rose career after more than three years incarcerated in the shadowland of sporting limbo, it is the ultimate decision-making position off the field as well. A boss leaving the big decision to the bloke on the shop floor? Alan Sugar would choke on his cornflakes at the very notion.

"I didn't know until Saturday morning that Jonny was in the frame to play for Newcastle at Leicester," Ashton explained yesterday as he chewed the fat over his selection for this weekend's Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham, "so there was no point thinking about naming him in my team. Once he'd played and come through it, I spoke to him. I told him not to make a knee-jerk decision, but to ask the people he trusts at Newcastle and run it by them.

"When I saw him on Sunday evening, he told me he was right. This was the key thing, as far as I was concerned: that Jonny felt in his own mind that he was ready to play international rugby again. I was happy to go along with whatever he said."

In truth, Ashton would not delegate so generously on every personnel issue. Martin Corry, for example, would declare himself fit even if he resembled the limbless knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. ("What do you mean, I'm not fit? I can still bleed on them, can't I?") Wilkinson is different, though. If any sportsman knows his own mind, it is the injury-plagued World Cup-winning No 10. After all, he spends enough time examining it.

He has certainly indulged in his fair share of introspection in recent months, judging by his comments at the new England training base in Bath. "Am I surprised at being in this situation? There is some surprise, yes, but I'm not one to doubt myself," he said. "I'm standing on the same two legs, playing the same game I've played for a very long time. International matches are one-off occasions that require very specific preparation. I'm preparing massively for this game against Scotland.

"The injuries have taken their toll - of course they have. It's hard to sit there week after week, seeing people do what you want to be doing over and over again. But the prospect of playing again, the thought that this or that injury would be the last, always excited me. There was a chance that I would play for the England Saxons on Friday night, and I was excited about it. Now I'm down to play at Twickenham, I feel even better.

"I'm no different in relation to my approach to rugby, either mentally or physically, but I think I'm probably a different person now. I've had my times of hardship, and it's been tough to handle some setbacks, but those hard times have been to do with my career.

"In life terms, I've experienced nothing compared with what some go through on a daily basis. You can get bitter about things or try to develop some empathy with people who find themselves in certain situations. I've gone down the empathy route and as a result, I fully appreciate the luck I've had in the past.

"Maybe I'm a different player too. I hope I've changed, and changed for the right reasons, because I'd hate to think I'm the same player as I was three years ago. I'll still play the game with the physicality I've always tried to bring to it - rugby union is an honest sport, where people put everything on the line every time they take the field - but I believe I have more composure now, a greater ability to see things simply. I've added a few strings to my bow in terms of my skills, but most importantly, I'm more stubborn than I was in respect of my opinions on how the game should be played."

Wilkinson has not worn the white shirt of his country since dropping the goal that won the Webb Ellis Trophy in Sydney more than a thousand days ago. More worryingly still, he has played precious little rugby of any description since the start of the season, thanks to problems with his knee ligaments and a grisly laceration of his kidney. "I've watched a lot of rugby from the sidelines, a lot of rugby from high up in the stand," he said, regretfully.

Yet his enthusiasm burns more brightly than ever - considerably more luminously, indeed, than during the last World Cup, when he often seemed tired and careworn. He will be under an unprecedented degree of pressure this weekend, but it does not appear to concern him one jot. Two former England captains, Will Carling and Matt Dawson, have placed themselves on record as fearing for his wellbeing against the Scots, but he rejected their opinions with a dismissive wave of the hand and a few well-chosen words. "The real pressure is the pressure I put on myself," he said with feeling, giving a sharp new edge to the well-worn sporting cliché.

Some of the new-found fizz is a natural consequence of returning to the England fold after so long an absence - an absence that denied him the opportunity of leading his country in the 2005 autumn international series. And the rest of it? Look no further than the presence of Andy Farrell, the former Great Britain rugby league captain, in a back division remodelled for the Scotland game after the failures of last November's Test series.

"It's a well-known fact that I've always been a supporter of Wigan rugby league club and I see this opportunity of playing alongside Andy as something special," Wilkinson said. For his part, Farrell professed himself full of admiration.

"I knew about Jonny's dedication, about his work ethic," he said, "but it's nice to see it with my own eyes. The important thing for me is to win his respect - that we develop a mutual respect."

A rugby follower would go a very long way indeed to find two more ardent professionals standing alongside each other in a back division, even though one has not played for his country in three years and the other has not played at all. Ashton is right to delegate. As the coach said yesterday: "Some of these people know as much as I do about this game, others know more. Why wouldn't I tap into what they do and how they go about doing it?"

Wilkinson milestones: Facts and figures of a rugby union legend

Top Points-Scorer England's highest points-scorer with 817 from 52 Tests. Paul Grayson is the next best, with 400 from 32 Tests.

Young Gun Youngest player in history to score more than 500 Test points and only the seventh player to pass the 700-point mark.

First Cap Won his first cap at the age of 18 as a replacement wing for Mike Catt against Ireland in April 1998, making him the youngest England cap since 1927.

Lions Legend Equalled the British and Irish Lions' best individual total in a Test with 18 points on the 2001 tour of Australia.

Record Holder Holds record for the most points scored in the Six Nations Championship, rattling up 89 in the 2000 tournament. Also the most points in a Six Nations match - 35 against Italy at Twickenham in 2001.

Golden Boot Only the third kicker to win the Golden Boot award by reaching 1,000 points in the English Premiership.