Wilkinson takes on England captaincy

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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson, a superstar sportsman blessed with the dedication of a monk and the wild streak of a middle-ranking civil servant, will captain England for the foreseeable future - a future the world champions feared they might be forced to face without the services of their peerless marksman-in-chief.

Jonny Wilkinson, a superstar sportsman blessed with the dedication of a monk and the wild streak of a middle-ranking civil servant, will captain England for the foreseeable future - a future the world champions feared they might be forced to face without the services of their peerless marksman-in-chief. The Newcastle outside-half was confirmed in the role yesterday when Andy Robinson, the acting head coach of the national team, formally identified him as the successor to Lawrence Dallaglio, who retired from Test rugby shortly before the start of the season.

Wilkinson, who led his country in the Six Nations match with Italy at Twickenham in 2003, has never made a secret of his ambition to shoulder the burden on a full-time basis, and he was suitably pleased with himself when the England squad gathered at their training headquarters in Surrey for the second in a series of get-togethers before next month's matches with Canada, South Africa and Australia. "I have realised a dream," he said.

Robinson found himself in the peculiar position of identifying a leader before he himself had been given the unqualified support of the Rugby Football Union, who have summoned the coach to make his pitch for long-term preferment in front of a selection panel next week. However, he remains a clear favourite for the job, just as Wilkinson was an obvious choice as lieutenant-in-chief.

The fact that the 25-year-old stand-off has only recently recovered from surgery on a chronic neck condition, and that he is transparently playing a less physical style of rugby as a result, might have persuaded Robinson to look elsewhere, had there been a realistic alternative. But two forwards with captaincy experience, the Gloucester prop Phil Vickery and the Saracens flanker Richard Hill, are struggling with their own injuries, while other possibilities - the Leicester lock Ben Kay and the Harlequins centre Will Greenwood - are out of form. In the event, Robinson chose the devil he knew, rather than gamble on Steve Borthwick, of Bath, as a left-field alternative.

"There are several players in the squad I would have felt comfortable in calling upon to be England captain," Robinson insisted, not entirely convincingly, "but Jonny is in every way the right player to take on this challenge. He is a natural leader, he holds the respect of the whole squad, he is a formidable talent and consistently demonstrates the energy and commitment I feel is essential in a captain of England.

"Captaincy is a challenging environment for any player, especially one following Lawrence Dallaglio and, before him, Martin Johnson. But I am confident Jonny has what it takes to do an outstanding job as we look towards the next World Cup in France."

According to the RFU, Robinson was keen to select a player capable, in theory at least, of leading the team through to that very tournament in 2007. This is asking a great deal, especially in light of Wilkinson's traumas on the fitness front, but there is clearly a method in the madness. Leaving aside the occasional absences for injury and disciplinary reasons, Johnson held the captaincy throughout the four-year cycle between the 1999 and 2003 World Cups, and the sense of continuity was a valuable weapon in the red-rose armoury.

Sensibly, Wilkinson avoided any mention of France 2007. He did not even look ahead to the autumn internationals, two of which are very serious propositions indeed. Instead, he spoke of his "immense" pride. "It is the ambition of so many players to captain England," he said. "I'm honoured Andy wants me to be his captain, and to follow Lawrence and Martin means a lot to me as they were inspirational men who gave so much to England rugby over many years. Getting my first cap against Ireland six years ago was something I'll never forget, because to play for your country is very special. Taking on the captaincy is another important step in my career."

While Wilkinson is far from the youngest player to be handed the responsibility of leading the national team through an ever more demanding Test programme - the Harlequins centre Will Carling was anointed by Geoff Cooke as a 22-year-old rookie barely out of rugby's equivalent of playschool - the new head boy is nevertheless one of a rare breed. In the post-war era, only five other outside-halves have performed the role: Tom Kemp and Nim Hall of Richmond, Ivor Preece of Coventry, Richard Sharp of Wasps and Rob Andrew, who was also a Wasp at the time of his leadership, but ultimately moved to Newcastle to become, among other things, Wilkinson's own philosopher-guide.

Andrew was granted only two matches at the helm, but won them both. Should his protégé manage a couple of wins against the Springboks and the Wallabies next month, it will be a significantly greater achievement.

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