The Rugby World Cup: Can Jonny be good on the world stage? Yes

The Michael Owen factor: Jonny Wilkinson of England
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The Independent Online
A MINUTE to go in the World Cup quarter-final, and England have driven a line-out towards the Australian 22, the ball comes back to the fly-half wide out on the 10-yard line, he takes one last glance at the posts and as the defence rushes up strikes the sweetest drop-goal straight through the sticks to take England through to the semi-final.

The lasting memory for most England supporters during the 1995 World Cup was that touch of magic from Rob Andrew. However, it did not mean as much as the goal that South Africa's Joel Stransky went on to drop in the final two weeks later, which is where we desperately wanted to be.

Four years on and all of England's hopes in this World Cup will be resting on a young man who watched that match in between his GCSE examinations, a man who has probably rehearsed that kick a thousand times, pretending he was Rob and his brother Mark was Dewi Morris flinging the ball out to him. However, unlike most other youngsters Jonny Wilkinson has probably converted 90 per cent of them.

He would have probably kicked it a thousand times in the week following that quarter-final win. For when it comes to training assiduously, Jonny is rugby's answer to golf's Vijay Singh. If neither of them trained they would probably strike at a ball pretty sweetly, such is their natural talent, but all that hard graft adds the percentages to the final result.

An international strike rate of roughly 90 per cent is testimony to that. Vijay probably needs to work a bit harder to better his drives-on- fairway average.

Jonny's burst on to the rugby scene has obviously drawn interesting parallels with football's Michael Owen. Save for a couple of stone of muscle they are very similar in appearance. Both are as deadly in front of goal and, most distinctly, both belie their very tender years. Fair enough that "if they are good enough they are old enough" but an added benefit is that they play with the maturity of players much, much older. However, Jonny's achievements are that much more remarkable in that he is the general of the team he plays in.

Wearing the No 10 shirt, he must shape a game, dictate the pace of it, bring the best out of all those around him and then step up and slot a kick with 75,000 people willing him on. Despite all this he plays with increased maturity - or is it the confidence of youth?

Well, you cannot say that it is purely the latter, for in one so young in international terms he has already had to take on much in the way of negative baggage. Being beaten 76-0 by a rampant Aussie side last summer and then suffering an injury and defeat shortly thereafter against the All Blacks are not ideal baptisms to a burgeoning Test career, and nor are the personal attacks that accompany such events from the press.

Yet although it may be tearing him up on the inside he certainly doesn't show it where it counts, on the pitch, for both England and Newcastle. Indeed he has the ability to take the most he can out of all situations, a believer in the adage that you can learn more from failure than you can from success. That being the case you hope that he has learnt all he must, for we want nothing but success over the coming weeks.

So is he ready then? After all, in Paul Grayson and Mike Catt it is not as though England haven't got able alternatives to take them into this tournament. The biggest thing against him is his lack of experience at fly-half at the top level, with all due respect to Lord Wandsworth College. He has had just two seasons at my club Newcastle, but that has predominantly been at centre and he has had just three games at fly-half for England.

In his favour, during those two years at Newcastle he has been playing under the guidance of one Rob Andrew. Moreover, a lot of what we have done has centred around Jonny in his inside-centre role, and indeed it has been his ability to break down defences and to move us around the park that has come to the fore.

One can question his readiness, but every challenge so far placed before him has been met. Was he ready to play First Division rugby? Yes. Was he ready to play for England? Yes. Was he ready to take the place-kicks? Yes. Is he ready to play fly-half for England? For what it's worth, my view is yes.

But watch out, Jonny, after you've kicked that drop goal to win the World Cup final, there will be some GCSE student out there somewhere going through it a thousand times.

ROB ANDREW ON HIS STAR PUPIL

Jonny can achieve what I've achieved as a player. He's a bit special. He's only very young, but he has already played for England and has a tremendous future ahead of him. He's got all the skills, yet he wants to be better. That's why he'll break my England records, and I will be delighted the day he does. I get as much pleasure seeing him out there kicking goals for England as I did when it was my job. Everyone realises we've got a superstar on our hands. It was always going to happen to Jonny. The one thing that's guaranteed is that something will go wrong. A couple of kicks will go astray. God forbid he misses a late penalty that costs England. But you have to take the rough with the smooth and I'm sure he'll cope. I knew he was going to be a great goal-kicker, that's why I let him take over at Newcastle. I wanted him in the team and kicking goals.

Rob Andrew, England's record scorer with 396 points in 71 Tests who retired last week, speaking about his Newcastle protege

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