- England vs Ireland – World Cup warm-up game
England’s World Cup Hero Jonny Wilkinson was back in the reckoning to be England’s Rugby World Cup fly-half after replacing Toby Flood for their final warm-up game against Ireland. Wilkinson will be back at the pivotal playmaker role at the Aviva Stadium just a fortnight before England’s opening World Cup clash against Argentina in a new-look midfield featuring Mike Tindall and Manu Tuilagi.
The England side includes no less than six changes from the 19-9 defeat to Wales in Cardiff and provides the strongest indication yet of Martin Johnson’s World Cup thinking.
Wilkinson has spent most of the last 18 months acting as England’s fly-half understudy, warming the bench as Flood made the position his own.
But Johnson gave each man a start each in the warm-up Tests against Wales as he mixed and matched selection, with the intention of naming his strongest possible team to play Ireland.
Wilkinson has reclaimed the prized England 10 jersey and he returns to the starting line-up fitter than before and, he believes, better for his time on the bench.
“It is a massive pleasure (starting) and it is ultimately what you are after,” said Wilkinson, whose last start in a full-strength England side was the 15-15 draw with Scotland in March 2010.
“The experience of being on the bench and having to react to that has been a massive learning one for me. I have benefited hugely from it.
“At the time I probably would have wanted to be in a different role and I may not have been the happiest with it but what I learned – in terms of coming into late parts of games, needing to try and find solutions or hold onto situations – was invaluable.
“I am really pleased with that and I am trying to apply all that and integrate it into a performance now that will be from the first whistle.”
Wilkinson may be heading into his fourth World Cup and come through some potentially career-ending injury setbacks – but he is setting new standards on the training field.
The 32-year-old has set a personal best in England’s fitness tests and his endurance leaves the rest of the squad in his wake.
“Jonny’s ahead of everybody by about 10 seconds. He just doesn’t drop off his fitness,” said wing Chris Ashton. “I don’t know how he does it.”
Johnson does, having played with Wilkinson at both the 1999 World Cup and the triumph in Australia in 2003.
“That is what he is about,” said Johnson. “However many Test matches he has played or whatever he has done, he is still out there working harder than anyone to be better – whether it is fitness, kicking, tackling, defending, attacking.
“That is why he is such a great example to everybody.
“He has played very well. He deserves this game to start. We think it is the right call for them (Wilkinson and Flood) to swap round and we don’t miss a beat.” Johnson insisted the team to play Ireland is not his first XV, not least because injured duo Lewis Moody and Ben Youngs are yet to be considered.
Johnson added: “Let’s not worry about the World Cup. Let’s play this game. That is what rugby is about. This is a game that gets the blood flowing. Let’s go out there and give it a good crack.”