Jonny Wilkinson, the injury-plagued fly-half, is confident he will be fit enough to play a significant part in England's five-match tour of Australia. Wilkinson suffered yet another setback when he damaged his ribs playing for his French side Toulon in the Amlin Challenge Cup final and has been advised by club medics to avoid all contact training until just three days before the first Test against Australia in Perth on June 12.
But Wilkinson, who has not played in Australia since kicking the drop goal that won England the 2003 Rugby World Cup, is chomping at the bit for a swift return to action. "Injury-wise I'm fine," he said after England's 44-man squad arrived in Perth yesterday. "I took a knock in the back in our last game of the season. I've already had a week [without contact work] and I'm being held back by the physios rather than anything else at the moment. I want to get out there, but they are telling me to take a few more days.
"It's nice to be here with easily enough time to get ready to be on the training field at the same time as everyone else." Despite Wilkinson's eagerness, Martin Johnson, the England team manager, suggested he would be held back from next Tuesday's tour-opener against the Australian Barbarians. "Jonny's had more games than most of the players this year with the season in France, so we'll see," Johnson said.
Wilkinson lost the England fly-half jersey to Toby Flood after a series of patchy performances during the Six Nations earlier this year. But he has his sights set on playing in a fourth World Cup in New Zealand next autumn. "For me it's an exciting year ahead and the process of getting older and playing rugby has actually been quite interesting to me, especially the last couple of years," said Wilkinson.
"I've made some big decisions in terms of where my career has gone and I've enjoyed the learning process. One thing I've learned from that is that you can't say how long you will play for. "A World Cup, regardless of how many more you have to play, is enough to focus on and if you get the chance is a big, big thing. To play one more would be enormous and that's the aim." Meanwhile, Bath's Butch James has been withdrawn from South Africa's line-up for their clash against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday. Premier Rugby, the umbrella organisation for England's Premiership clubs, has a blanket policy of not releasing players for Tests not governed by the International Rugby Board's regulation on player release.
Ronan O'Gara will captain Ireland in tomorrow's match against the Barbarians at Thomond Park. O'Gara, who will play alongside Peter Stringer, his Munster colleague, at half-back, replaces the regular captain, Brian O'Driscoll, who is rested ahead of the tour to New Zealand and Australia with the team departing on Saturday. * Agencies