Fri, Sep 07, 2007 - Page 24 News List

No Jonny, but England should win at a canter

AFP , LENS, FRANCE

England head into their World Cup opener against the US in Lens tomorrow without Jonny Wilkinson and, while the reigning champions should still overcome the Eagles, all eyes will be on the outside-half's replacement, Olly Barkley.

England have had to get used to life without Wilkinson, whose drop-goal against Australia four years ago in extra-time sealed a dramatic World Cup final victory.

After that match in Sydney it was to be another 1,169 days before he played for England again after a variety of injuries to the No. 10's shoulders, biceps, knees and ankles.

But now it looks as if Wilkinson could miss England's crunch pool game against South Africa on Sept. 14 in Paris after he suffered a ligament sprain in his ankle while training on Tuesday.

That is what makes Barkley's performance this weekend all the more important.

Any sign of struggle against the US, one of the tournament's minnows, could damage morale and reinforce the impression that England cannot win unless Wilkinson is in the side.

Moreover, it would also place pressure on coach Brian Ashton who left out Toby Flood, Wilkinson's understudy at Newcastle and someone often tipped as the most likely long-term candidate to replace England's record points scorer.

Barkley made his Test debut as a teenager against the US in San Francisco more than six years ago, but tomorrow's encounter at the Stade Felix-Bollaert will be his World Cup debut.

The US will not lack for detailed knowledge of several England players, but how much they can do with it is another question.

"Perhaps, in hindsight, one or two more games together against stiff opposition would have sharpened up our team to a level we have to attain very promptly in France," US coach Peter Thorburn said.

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