Wilkinson returns as Ashton opts for a bold new England

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The Independent Online

Eleven changes of personnel, two positional switches, an international debut for the celebrated cross-coder Andy Farrell, a blast from the past in the shape of Jason Robinson ­ one way or another, the new England head coach, Brian Ashton, detonated a sporting depth charge with his first Test selection yesterday. Yet in the midst of all this explosive activity, one name and one number exercised a gravitational pull on the rugby senses: Jonny Wilkinson at No 10.

Approximately 50 minutes into his latest comeback from injury ­ having damaged all the visible bits of the body, he has recently been working his way through the invisible bits, starting with his kidney ­ the Newcastle outside-half was named in the starting line-up for this weekend's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Twickenham. The last time he played for his country, Wilkinson dropped the goal that won a World Cup. That was in 2003, and he has not touched the ball for England since.

Rumour had been rife for some days that the 27-year-old goal-kicker had forced his way into the reckoning, despite three months of enforced inactivity. He played a leading role in last week's training get-together, spending a good deal of time alongside Farrell in a reshaped midfield, and impressed the coaching team with his physicality. As a result, he was heavily favoured to secure a place on the bench for the first of this season's Six Nations outings.

In the event, Ashton went far further by installing Wilkinson ahead of the other outside-halves in the 29-man squad, the youngsters Toby Flood and Shane Geraghty. It seems the coach saw enough from the senior player during the half of rugby he played for Newcastle against Leicester in the Premiership match at Welford Road last Saturday to convince him that indecent haste can sometimes be a virtue.

Wilkinson's presence, alongside three other first-choice World Cup-winning backs, restores some backbone to an England team so fragile in recent months that eight of the last nine international matches have been lost. Josh Lewsey, who did more than most to buck the trend with a brilliant defensive performance at full-back against the Springboks in November, moves to the wing in the absence of two injured finishers, Mark Cueto of Sale and Paul Sackey of Wasps. The other wing will be occupied by Robinson, who unretired himself as a result of Ashton's return to the coaching panel, while Mike Tindall is back in midfield for the first time since the 2006 Six Nations.

And then there is the Farrell factor. If Wilkinson has played little union of late, the former Great Britain rugby league captain has played little union full stop. Seven serious games for Saracens is about the size of it. Once again, Ashton has convinced himself that class is permanent, even if most of that class has manifested itself in a different sport. "It is well documented that I've been an admirer of Andy's career for many years," the coach said. "I'm looking forward to seeing him play rugby union for his country."

Farrell's promotion comes as no particular surprise. England have not unearthed a long-term replacement for Will Greenwood since the angular Harlequin called it a day after the 2004 autumn international series ­ the likes of Tindall and Jamie Noon were played out of position at inside centre and failed to make sense of it; Olly Barkley of Bath was ditched without being given a chance to mess up, and there was no obvious alternative in the squad chosen for the Scotland game once the veteran London Irish playmaker Mike Catt was released to play for his club at the weekend.

Inexperienced as he may be, the Lancastrian is no stranger to the grand occasion; indeed, his league record suggests an iron temperament to go with his ton-of-bricks physique. He is a natural distributor, armed with a strong kicking game, and if, as the Saracens coach, Alan Gaffney, suggests, he has also come to terms with the unique defensive demands of the union code, he may well nail down the No 12 position for the forthcoming World Cup in France.

Celebrity selections being what they are, the forward pack pales into insignificance compared with the glitterati in the back division. Yet the surgery has been no less comprehensive, with Phil Vickery, one of three players winning a 50th cap, shifting across the front row to relocate at tight-head prop; Perry Freshwater returning on the loose head; and George Chuter, all anger and aggression, edging the more conciliatory Lee Mears out of the hooker's berth. Chuter might not have made it had Steve Thompson been fit, but the Northampton captain's neck injury is more serious than initially thought and will incapacitate him for at least eight weeks.

Dan Ward-Smith, the in-form Bristol No 8, is also out of the tournament, having suffered a horrible knee injury on Saturday night. This simplified the back-row debate, guaranteeing a starting place for Martin Corry, one of only two players in situ from the last outing, the defeat by South Africa that cost Andy Robinson his job as head coach. There was, however, some head-scratching over the engine-room partnership before Ashton, no doubt prompted by the forwards coach, John Wells, opted for the grunt-and-groan combination of Louis Deacon and Danny Grewcock. Deacon is not the tallest lock on the face of the earth, a fact that will not be lost on the outstanding Scottish line-out exponent Scott Murray, but between them they will knock a fair few heads together.

England will go into the game with pace at the back, with substance in midfield and with experience across the board. In that sense, it is a clever selection. But it is a gambler's selection, too. Wilkinson and Farrell, the fulcrum of the team, are unknown quantities, albeit in different ways. Will it work? Let's put it this way: it will be fun finding out.

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