Wilkinson dropped from England team

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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson has been dropped from the starting line-up for England's RBS 6 Nations clash against Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday. The fly-half superstar, who kicked England to 2003 World Cup glory, will be on the bench and replaced by 20-year-old Danny Cipriani.

Wilkinson, capped 69 times, pays the price following a poor display during England's 15-9 Calcutta Cup defeat to Scotland in Edinburgh three days ago.

Amazingly though, it is the solitary change as England head coach Brian Ashton gives his players a completely undeserved vote of confidence.

And Wilkinson will now be seen as something of a scapegoat, which is harsh on him in the extreme.

Gifted Cipriani is viewed as Wilkinson's heir-apparent in the England number 10 shirt.

Wilkinson was overlooked for England's 1999 World Cup quarter-final against South Africa in favour of Paul Grayson.

That though, was viewed as a horses for courses selection, whereas on this occasion he has arguably been dropped purely on a loss of form.

Cipriani makes an immediate return to the side after being selected at full-back for the Scotland clash - then axed by Ashton when he was pictured leaving a London night-spot after midnight last Thursday.

Ashton's decision received widespread condemnation, with former England chief Sir Clive Woodward among those who criticised his handling of Cipriani.

But Cipriani is now given a belated first Test start in a side that remarkably shows no other switches following the Scotland shocker.

There are two changes on the bench, where fit-again flanker James Haskell takes over from Luke Narraway and Wilkinson features instead of Charlie Hodgson, but Ashton has stopped there.

Wing Lesley Vainikolo can be among those considered fortunate to escape, yet Ashton has given the players who got England into such a sorry mess an opportunity to get them out of it.

Wilkinson made his England debut against Ireland 10 years ago, and he broke Neil Jenkins' world Test points record of 1090 for Wales and the Lions at Murrayfield when he kicked the first of three successful penalties.

But his general play, notably tactical direction and kicking from hand, fell way below standard, leaving Ashton with little option but to consider fly-half alternatives.

It is unlikely to spell the end of 28-year-old Wilkinson's illustrious England reign, but Cipriani can now make a major statement.

Ashton will look to Cipriani for the creative spark so badly lacking during a Six Nations campaign that has horribly misfired.

And if he provides it, then he will be in pole position for England's daunting two-Test tour to New Zealand this summer.

England though, have struggled through another Six Nations season that will see Wales or France crowned champions in Cardiff later this week.

England have not lifted Six Nations silverware since their Grand Slam-winning campaign in 2003, and vultures are circling over Ashton.

His team has to beat a similarly under-performing Irish side, or he will face renewed - and inevitably more strident - calls for his departure.

Ashton has taken charge of England in 21 Tests since he succeeded Andy Robinson almost 15 months ago, losing 10 of those, although he did oversee a World Cup final appearance against all odds last October.

Meanwhile, the Wales team for Wales' RBS 6 Nations Grand Slam showdown with France at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday has also been announced. And James Hook has reclaimed the fly-half jersey from Stephen Jones

Jones started Wales' last two victories over Italy and Ireland but head coach Warren Gatland believes Hook's creative qualities will be best suited to tackling the French.

The only other change from Saturday's 16-12 Triple Crown victory in Dublin is the return of hooker Huw Bennett, who missed out at Croke Park after contracting flu.

Wales are on the brink of winning the Six Nations title and one victory away from a second Grand Slam triumph in four years.

Gatland said: "We have an historic opportunity and we intend to grasp it with both hands.

"We have afforded ourselves the luxury of bringing in James Hook for the different qualities he will offer in this match, but we have pretty much said 'same again' to the boys that brought home the silverware on Saturday.

"Stephen Jones will offer us the benefit of his vast experience from the bench and he is one of a number of players who can come on and change the game for us if necessary.

"Huw Bennett comes in for Matthew Rees but, as I've said previously, there are marginal selection decisions to make all over the field and hooker is the perfect example of one of them.

"We are confident, we have worked hard and if we continue in the same vein in which we started this campaign, we believe we can come away with a deserved victory on Saturday."

Wales' healthy points difference means they can afford to lose by 18 points and still be crowned Six Nations champions - but Gatland wants to finish on a high and seal a 10th Welsh Grand Slam.

"It will be nice if we can take the championship, but we'd like to be doing it with a win over France. To win on points difference would be something of a hollow victory," said Gatland.

"We have already achieved something in this campaign that can't be taken away from us, but we have an opportunity now to push on and do something a little bit special in front of our home crowd and to put some more smiles on Welsh faces for the second time in eight days."

France have won their last six matches at the Millennium Stadium, including the World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand.

The last time they beat Wales in Cardiff by more than 20 points - the amount required to snatch the title - was in 2000.

They have been an unpredictable force this tournament with new coach Marc Lievremont not afraid to experiment and ring the changes.

Gatland added: We have momentum which is what this tournament is all about but you can never underestimate the French.

"We will probably be tipped as favourites after putting a run of results together and it is how we handle that pressure which will be a deciding factor."

Ospreys lock Ian Gough will lead the team out at the Millennium Stadium to mark his 50th Test cap, while Duncan Jones is also set to bring up his half-century from the bench.

England team to play Ireland in the RBS 6 nations Championship at Twickenham on Saturday: I Balshaw (Gloucester); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), T Flood (Newcastle), L Vainikolo (Gloucester); D Cipriani (Wasps), R Wigglesworth (Sale Sharks); A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), L Mears (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps. capt), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath), T Croft (Leicester), M Lipman (Bath), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: G Chuter (Leicester), M Stevens (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), J Haskell (Wasps), P Hodgson (London Irish), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), M Tait (Newcastle).

The Wales team to play France in the RBS 6 Nations at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 1700): L Byrne (Ospreys); M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), G Henson (Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); J Hook (Ospreys), M Phillips (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), H Bennett (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), AW Jones (Ospreys), J Thomas (Ospreys), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt).
Replacements: M Rees (Llanelli Scarlets), D Jones (Ospreys), I Evans (Ospreys) , G Delve (Gloucester), D Peel (Llanelli Scarlets), S Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), S Parker (Ospreys).

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