Wilkinson on verge of comeback

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The Independent Online

Things have reached a pretty pass when the most noteworthy aspect of a Six Nations weekend at Twickenham takes place 24 hours after the main event, at a construction site of a venue approximately one-eighth the size of the state-of-the-art stadium where England take on Italy tomorrow afternoon.

Things have reached a pretty pass when the most noteworthy aspect of a Six Nations weekend at Twickenham takes place 24 hours after the main event, at a construction site of a venue approximately one-eighth the size of the state-of-the-art stadium where England take on Italy tomorrow afternoon. Extraordinary as the situation involving the reigning world champions may be - should they mess up against the Azzurri, they will be deep in wooden spoon territory - the really significant moment will not occur until Sunday.

Always assuming it occurs at all. When Jonny Wilkinson and his injury record is involved, certainty tends to take a back seat. Still, the man with the golden boot - not to mention the dodgy neck, the battered arm and the mangled knee ligaments - has been included among a small battalion of potential replacements, 11 in total, for Newcastle's meeting with Harlequins at the Stoop Memorial Ground this coming Sabbath. He may even play. There again, he may not.

Given that half of France materialised at the Parc des Princes in Paris at the beginning of last week to watch the England outside-half and captain in absentia drum up some interest for the Heineken Cup quarter-final between Stade Français and Newcastle early next month, the faintest whiff of an active appearance by Wilkinson in south-west London will guarantee a capacity crowd, even though the player himself believes he should be the last thing on the rugby public's mind, having played a mere handful of games since dropping his World Cup-winning goal in Sydney almost 16 months ago.

As per usual, Newcastle are not guaranteeing anything on the Wilkinson front. "Jonny has done everything with us this week, including live contact and kicking, so there's every chance he will take some part," Rob Andrew, the director of rugby, said yesterday. And England? Could Wilkinson possibly return to the red rose squad for the Calcutta Cup match with Scotland tomorrow week? "If Jonny plays on Sunday and is fully fit on Monday morning, then it becomes a selection call for England, which is nothing to do with us as a club," Andrew replied. "We can't give Jonny game time next week as we don't have a match. England do have one, so Andy Robinson will be the one to decide whether to reintroduce him to the set-up."

One way or another, Newcastle could have quite a bench at their disposal this weekend. The teenage centre Mathew Tait, fast-tracked into the England side for the opening Six Nations match in Wales and then fast-tracked straight back out of it, will certainly feature among the substitutes, provided he is in a decent shape after his stint with the national seven-a-side squad. The Falcons' new Argentinian prop, Galo Alvarez Quinones, will also be there, despite being called up by the Pumas for a week-long camp.

England, meanwhile, regathered at their headquarters in Surrey ahead of today's final training session - a captain's run under their new leader, the Leicester No 8 Martin Corry. Happily, the physical wrecks who put themselves through last Sunday's epic Powergen Cup semi-final between Gloucester and Bath at Kingsholm - the centre Olly Barkley, the props Matthew Stevens and Duncan Bell, the locks Danny Grewcock and Steve Borthwick, and the flanker Andy Hazell - were all scheduled to take a full part after missing great bleeding chunks of the build-up earlier in the week.

"It hasn't been ideal," admitted Barkley, the self-assured young centre from Bath. "Six-day turnarounds are always a bitch whenever they happen. They're bad enough in club weeks, let alone international ones. On Monday and Tuesday, I was still cramping up just walking around the hotel, so there was no way on earth I could have trained. Because the semi-final went into extra time, it was abnormally demanding. I felt completely knackered, and I'm only a back. Sometimes, I wonder how the forwards manage to recover at all."

At least Barkley is optimistic about the potential of England's revamped back division, in which Iain Balshaw of Leeds has replaced the injured Jason Robinson at full-back.

"Jason is a freak," Barkley said, in all politeness. "He can do things outside the scope of any other player in the world. But he is an out-and-out attacker while Iain is an out-and-out full-back, and the change will have an effect. I make it my business to find out what the people around me like to do - there's no point asking them to perform in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable - and I'm confident Iain will give us something to play off."

Back on the Premiership front, London Irish face Leicester at Welford Road tonight with a debutant wing in Dominic Shabbo, the England Under-19 cap.

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