Wigglesworth ready to pick up the pace

New No 9 charged with getting England moving must prevail over an equally inexperienced opponent. Tim Glover reports
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The Independent Online

He was not massively spoilt for choice but even so Brian Ashton, who by some distance is more of a conservative than a maverick, has taken a significant gamble in selecting Richard Wigglesworth at scrum-half for what promises to be an extremely difficult game against France in Paris on Saturday.

The vastly more experienced Andy Gomarsall, who had a good World Cup and at 33 is, or was, one of Ashton's senior lieutenants, is not even among the replacements. The French had just about got used to pronouncing the name of Gomarsall and now they have to get their tongues around Wigglesworth, which is sometimes a problem even in Cheshire.

"If every week was like this I'd be a very happy man," Wigglesworth said. He was referring to Sale's victory in the Guinness Premiership last weekend, Manchester United's win in the FA Cup and, of course, the fact that he will make a first start in the red rose jersey.

"You've got to back yourself. You try and play as well as you can for your club. It's always been my ultimate goal to play for England and I thought I had a chance this year." What, exactly, is Wigglesworth bringing to the England cause? "My job is to generate quick ball, pick up the tempo and play a bit of football."

The implication being that after the first two rounds of the Six Nations – a shocking defeat to Wales at Twickenham and a distinctly unimpressive four-point victory over Italy in Rome – quick ball, tempo and a bit of rugby have not exactly been to the fore.

"Most of our problems against Italy stemmed from slow ball in the tackle area and this is something we'd like to address," Ashton said.

"Wigglesworth was the first name on the list for scrum-half," he added. "He's been playing pretty well for Sale and I like a solid No 9."

At 24, Wigglesworth is no apprentice. Born in Blackpool, he was a product of Kirkham Grammar School and, after making his debut for Sale in 2002, he featured in England's Under-21 Grand Slam-winning side in 2004. Last year he helped the Saxons to success in the Churchill Cup.

As Wigglesworth said, it has been a memorable week for him. He came on as a replacement against the Italians in Rome and has been preferred to Gomarsall, with London Irish's Paul Hodgson the scrum-half cover. Why Hodgson? "He reminds me of an Australia Test wicketkeeper," Ashton said. "He never shuts up, he's a bundle of enthusiasm and it's great to have people like that on the field." This is bad news for Gomarsall who has won 35 caps after making his debut against Italy at Twickenham in 1996.

Three other scrum-halves, Harry Ellis, Peter Richards and Shaun Perry, who had been ahead in the pecking order are injured. It is an occupational hazard. Ellis, who had been the front-runner, has not played since damaging a knee last May.

Perhaps Wigglesworth is fortunate in another regard. At Stade de France on Saturday night he will not be up against Les Bleus' first-choice No 9, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, nor even that experienced and redoubtable performer Dimitri Yachvili. The Biarritz player, who has often tormented England in the past, is on the bench, understudying the 19-year-old Morgan Parra from Bourgoin.

If the teenager is a Parra, Wigglesworth regards himself as something of a trooper. At Sale he had to fight for game time against the formidable Scotland scrum-half Bryan Redpath and next season he will be in competition with the Llanelli and Wales scrum-half Dwayne Peel, who has signed a three-year contract with the Cheshire club. "It will be a battle to keep the England jersey," Wigglesworth said. "It's been a battle to get hold of it. It's never been easy. It's made me a better person, mentally stronger."

Aside from knocking France out in the semi-finals of the World Cup last October, Les Rosbifs have not beaten them in Paris in eight years.

While England were reaching the final four months ago, Wigglesworth was at home, "having a cup of tea with my feet up and watching the match on the box. The French are notoriously difficult to beat at home and under their new coach can play it both ways. I always get nervous before games but I'm thoroughly looking forward to it."

Wigglesworth is right in his assumption that he will have to fight to keep his jersey but if the worst comes to the worst he may have a standby career. His parents, dairy farmers, have converted part of their land into a nine-hole golf course at Staining Lodge on the Fylde coast and last week Wigglesworth went round in 36 strokes, level par. Not half bad for a 15-handicapper.

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