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19 Sep 2007 11:44
Brian Ashton may have entrusted the pivotal position of flyhalf to a man who has spent much of the past fortnight with his right foot in an ice bucket, but the England coach didn’t look like a man who’d taken a gamble when he unveiled his team to play Samoa.
Fit-again Jonny Wilkinson returns and starts a Test with Olly Barkley at inside centre for the first time.
The faltering champions badly need a win in Nantes on Saturday to restore their morale after last week’s 36-0 thrashing by South Africa—England’s record World Cup defeat.
Wilkinson, whose extra-time drop-goal four years ago was the winning score in the World Cup final against Australia, saw his post-2003 injury jinx strike again when, during England’s first training session in France, he sustained damage to his right ankle ligaments.
The 28-year-old, who has appeared in just seven of England’s 42 Tests since that memorable night in Sydney, feared his World Cup might be over before it began as he looked on while the team struggled during a 28-10 opening Pool A win over the United States before being humbled by the Springboks.
Barkley, England’s man-of-the-match against the Eagles playing at flyhalf, then missed the South Africa fixture with a hip problem.
He and Wilkinson now find themselves in key roles against a Samoa side who must win on Saturday to keep their hopes of a quarterfinal place alive after last weekend’s surprise 19-15 defeat against Pacific Island rivals Tonga.
Ashton, who has omitted veteran back Mike Catt—England’s stand-off against South Africa—entirely from his 22 and dropped Andy Farrell, inside centre on Friday, to the bench, said he expected his new partnership to give England “more balance” in their play.
“We’re going to have our two best kickers on the field and the two best distributors on the field at 10 and 12,” said Ashton.
“I expect them [Wilkinson and Barkley] to manage the game well and to create the balance in terms of playing the game that so far we’ve been missing.”
Wilkinson insisted there was still time for him and Barkley to forge an effective understanding ahead of Saturday’s match.
“I guess we’re two guys who play the game in our heads very similarly and have a definite understanding of when to run, when to kick and when to pass.”
Meanwhile, England’s record points scorer played down suggestions his return was vital to the team’s chances.
“It never is just down to one player, it’s down to a shift in attitude and approach,” he said.
England were given a scare by Samoa on their way to winning the World Cup 2003, trailing 16-13 at half-time before winning 35-22 in Melbourne, and Wilkinson said they remained a dangerous side.
“I don’t think it takes a massive rugby brain to realise that these guys are physical and full of skill.”
In all, Ashton made seven changes to his starting side, with none of England’s backs retaining their position from last week’s match.
Mark Cueto returned on the wing in a revamped back three in the absence of Jason Robinson, who sustained a hamstring problem against the Springboks.
Mathew Tait takes the centre spot left vacant by Farrell’s omission and Jamie Noon’s tournament-ending knee injury.
Andy Gomarsall, a half-time replacement at the Stade de France, is set to start at scrumhalf in place of Shaun Perry.
In the pack Joe Worsley returns at openside as England again make a change to their longstanding back-row problem area, while George Chuter takes over at hooker from Mark Regan. Blindside flanker Martin Corry continues as stand-in skipper in the absence of captain and prop forward Phil Vickery, serving the second of a two-game ban for tripping.—Sapa-AFP
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