Wilkinson defies the young guns

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The Independent Online

There will almost certainly come a point during England's forthcoming Six Nations Championship campaign, which begins with a veritable pig of a match against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday, when the unnervingly young Danny Cipriani takes over the outside-half role from one of his elders and betters: that is to say, a bloke by the name of Wilkinson.

And when it happens, the most celebrated player in the world game will be delighted for him. Saint Jonny indeed. "I've never looked on the England No 10 shirt as something I own," Wilkinson said yesterday, "and I don't see things in terms of people fighting me for possession of it. What I see in Danny is someone driving up the standards of those around him, of pushing back the parameters.

"He copes far better than I did at his age. There is an authority about him, which is great, and he has a rounded view of where he thinks the game is going. He's not here to toe the line; he has his own views, and he expresses them. It's an honest approach, and I admire it." Most senior players faced with a challenge to their status from so precocious a talent as the uncapped 20-year-old Wasp, might have felt obliged to say something similar for public consumption, but they would have done so through gritted teeth.

Somehow, Wilkinson is both more genuine and more generous in his praise than the vast majority of his peers. Perhaps he can afford to be: after all, not everyone gets to drop a goal to win a World Cup final, or stand 18 points shy of hitting the 1,000 mark for England. But then, there is nothing synthetic about Newcastle's finest – unless, of course, it is holding his ravaged neck together.

England have their largest and most exciting group of Test-class No 10s in living memory; so many, indeed, that two of them - Toby Flood and Shane Geraghty – are playing their representative rugby at inside centre, for the senior side and the second-string Saxons team respectively.

Yet while Brian Ashton, the head coach, insists that every position, including Wilkinson's, is analysed and debated before every international fixture and vehemently denies that the incumbent is an automatic selection, there is no sign of a changing of the guard in this most influential of positions. If Jonny is standing, he starts. It seems hell will freeze over before someone drops him, even if he plays like a drain.

Reassuringly, at least from the English perspective, Wilkinson is fit, fresh and feeling rather good about himself. Statistically speaking, his marksmanship was not particularly impressive during the World Cup – by some calculations, he would have finished bottom of the pile had the Georgian kicker put one more ball between the sticks – but those trials and tribulations were forgotten long ago. "And anyway, I hope I kicked a good percentage of the ones that really mattered," he remarked, not unreasonably.

He is still working with his old mentor, Dave Alred, despite the fact that the pioneering kicking coach was sacked from the England coaching team in the spring of 2006 and replaced, if not on a full-time basis, by the former Bath full-back Jon Callard. If the England hierarchy is a touch defensive about the situation, Wilkinson is perfectly comfortable with an arrangement that permits him to consult Alred privately.

"It's important that I feel happy with the things that are happening in the England set-up, and it's safe to say that I do," he said. "But Dave is part of my background, part of where I've come from as a rugby player, and I enjoy spending time with him as well. I owe him a huge amount."

Wilkinson rarely, if ever, suffers from an outbreak of the yips at Twickenham, a stadium he knows like the back of his hand, and for that very good reason, Wales fear him. It is also the case, however, that when they travel to London tomorrow, their levels of hope and expectation will be more balanced than at any point in the last 20 years.

England are preparing for a hard encounter of the kind they patently did not experience when the Red Dragonhood sent a sub-standard side along the M4 for a World Cup warm-up match last August.

"I have no doubt this game will be highly confrontational," admitted John Wells, the forwards coach, "and played in a very physical, challenging environment in which the fight for that last scrap of ball will be crucial. We all know the nature of the side Wales sent during the summer, and that result [a 60-point victory for England] can be completely disregarded. They have a good combination in their forward pack. If you're too light up front, you can be bullied; if you're too heavy, you can struggle to fill the width of the field. They cover most of the angles now. I anticipate a tough match."

As England grew extremely familiar with the demands of nip-and-tuck rugby during the latter stages of the World Cup, can that hard edge be immediately resummoned to red rose advantage? "Our mindset in that tournament came out of adversity, out of things not going to plan," Wells replied. "People were very strong at important moments, both internally with themselves and externally with each other, and that took us a long way.

"But we have lost some senior individuals since then – the Martin Corrys, the Lawrence Dallaglios – and it is vital that others step up and imprint their personality on the squad."

In other words, who knows? Wells expects a number of his forwards – experienced hands like Simon Shaw, Steve Borthwick and Lewis Moody – to fill the gaps left by those natural leaders who retired following that close-run thing against the Springboks in Paris. As Wilkinson commented on an entirely different subject yesterday: "So much of this business is played out in the mind."