Wilkinson's smile hides doubts over Lions place

If there is something about Brian O'Driscoll, the supremely self-assured captain of Ireland, that makes you wonder whether this might be his season of seasons - a Triple Crown, a Grand Slam and the Lions captaincy are all legitimate targets for the celebrated Dubliner - there is something about Jonny Wilkinson, the non-playing captain of England, that gives cause for concern. Both men were in London yesterday for the official launch of the 2005 Six Nations Championship, and both men lived up - or in Wilkinson's case, down - to their recent reputations.

O'Driscoll bore the stamp of a Lions leader in waiting. There was no swagger about him; certainly, he made no reckless predictions in respect of his country's chances of landing a first Slam in almost 60 years. But neither was there even the remotest hint of meekness. "I'm not sure it's a case of now or never for this Irish team," he said, "but if we continue to feel the way we feel about ourselves at the moment, it's definitely a case of: 'Why not now?' The levels of expectancy in Ireland have grown for a reason, and it comes from our recent results. Why wait another year for fulfilment? We have to learn to deal with these expectations if we're to be taken seriously by the true superpowers of the world game."

Wilkinson, on the other hand, was in no position to talk about his hopes and dreams for the immediate future, given his continuing incarceration in a sporting limbo from which there is no instant escape. It is the best part of three weeks since he damaged ligaments in his left knee during Newcastle's heavy defeat in Perpignan in the Heineken Cup, and he has only just been given the all-clear to climb aboard an exercise bike. Straight-line running is still some way off; lateral running and agility work more distant still. As for goal-kicking ... well, the left-footed Wilkinson is not holding his breath on that front.

"I'm in a positive state of mind," insisted the outside-half. "The physios say they're as happy with me as they could reasonably hope at this stage. It was always going to be a six-to-eight week recovery, and while I'm not looking for shortcuts or trying to cheat the system, I still hope it will turn out to be six." All fine and dandy, then? Not quite. Asked about his chances of making the Lions tour of New Zealand this summer, he was strangely downbeat.

"The Lions tour is important, but it's no more important than anything else," he replied. "It's not my fault I'm injured. If I have to set targets for four years' time, rather than for this summer, that's what I'll do."

He was more animated by the thought of his 18-year-old clubmate, Mathew Tait, winning a debut cap at some stage of the forthcoming tournament, possibly as early as next weekend, when England travel to Cardiff.

"Mathew is so confident, he's annoying," Wilkinson said with a smile. "In the past, I've heard people describe a new young player as 'something special' and not really understood what they meant. Having trained and played with Mathew, I know exactly what they mean."

Should Tait play against the Welsh - and he is under heavy consideration - it will be at outside-centre, in place of the injured Mike Tindall. The most pressing problem for Andy Robinson, the England coach, is the inside-centre position, where he must either choose between the out-of-favour Henry Paul of Gloucester and the increasingly authoritative Olly Barkley of Bath, who prefers to play at outside-half, or think outside the box and entrust the the role to a non-kicking midfielder like Jamie Noon of Newcastle.

This much is certain: Robinson needs leaders. Jason Robinson, who has been captaining the side from full-back in Wilkinson's absence, is expected to recover from hamstring problems in time for the visit to the Millennium Stadium, although he has only a 40 per cent chance of turning out for Sale against Northampton this weekend. However, he is the first to admit that the tactical niceties of the union game are an abiding mystery. The coach needs others, not least in midfield, to take responsibility for more than their own performance.

"From what I've seen, the new leaders are beginning to come through," he said. "What we need now is a clear weekend on the injury front, which will give us the opportunity to train on Monday with a full complement of players. It would help our situation if most of squad had the weekend off, but then I want some people to play to get some momentum behind them. In the short term, it's about finding the right balance. In the long term, we all know that the burn-out issue has to be addressed."

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