June International Tours

Wilkinson raring to go



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England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson is ready to reclaim England’s number ten shirt when the World Champs clash with the Springboks in Bloemfontein on Saturday, with head coach Brian Ashton declaring: “He relishes a challenge.”

Another injury-disrupted campaign means Wilkinson has not played Test rugby since England’s crushing Six Nations Championship defeat against Ireland at Croke Park in February.

But Ashton will require every ounce of the Newcastle fly-half’s experience as a severely-depleted England squad prepares for demanding back-to-back appointments with South Africa in Bloemfontein and Pretoria.

Ashton is due to reveal his first Test line-up later on Tuesday, when a handful of uncapped players could feature either on starting duty or among the replacements.

Gloucester prop Nick Wood, Saracens hooker Matt Cairns, Bristol lock Roy Winters and Sale Sharks second-row forward Dean Schofield will be among those eagerly awaiting Ashton’s announcement.

But Wilkinson’s presence will be critical at Vodacom Park in Bloemfontein on Saturday when England hope to disprove the popular theory their two-week trip is little more than a damage limitation exercise.

Wilkinson could forge an all-Falcons midfield trio alongside Toby Flood and Mathew Tait.

“Jonny brings a massive amount of experience, very high skill levels and great enthusiasm for the game,” said Ashton.

“He is a player that relishes a challenge, whether it is a personal one or a team one, and he won’t have faced many bigger challenges than this in his rugby playing career.”

“I have not heard anybody say it is a fourth XV,” Ashton added.

“It was my decision to leave out the (Leicester, Wasps and Bath) players involved in the European finals, so this group is the next available group of players.

“There are a lot of very proud people in the squad, and they are going out to pull on an England shirt when maybe they thought the possibility had passed them by.

“Prior to the tour squad announcement, one or two of them were on the phone volunteering their services. Players like that are not going to lie back in the face of any challenge.”

England’s 30-man squad continued their build-up in the Johannesburg suburbs on Monday, where the early-morning temperature barely rose above freezing due to a weather front expected to remain in the Gauteng region for another five days.

“We have got a lot of work done in the four sessions we’ve had so far, and the coaches have been able to cover a lot more of our preparation with the players,” said England assistant coach Mike Ford.

“The extra time you get with a tour has been invaluable and, for the fourth time in a row, all 30 players trained again, which has been a massive boost for everyone.

“There are around 10 players I hadn’t really had the chance to work with before, mainly from Bristol and Gloucester, and their attitude on and off the pitch has been excellent, reflecting the good seasons they have enjoyed at club level in the Guinness Premiership.

“All of the new players have blended in well with the more experienced players like Jason Robinson and Jonny Wilkinson, and all the work they have doing together has been first class.”


365 Digital

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