Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Wilkinson backs Ford and Burns

Jonny Wilkinson hails the part volunteers have played in his glittering rugby career

Freddie Burns and George Ford need international action now to handle the "quantum leap" of a World Cup campaign, according to Jonny Wilkinson.

World Cup-winner Wilkinson believes England have plenty of fly-half depth behind Owen Farrell, but admits experience is another matter entirely.

The 34-year-old has urged head coach Stuart Lancaster to blood playmakers Burns and Ford as soon as possible, to bolster England's impending bid for world cup glory on home soil.

Backing England for a fruitful campaign in 2015, Wilkinson said Lancaster's squad boasts far stronger foundations than in 2011.

"There is definitely back-up, but with experience, it is difficult," said Wilkinson of England's fly-half stocks.

"It is that old argument that you can't play because you are not experienced enough. How do you ever play then without giving someone their first shot?

"Building up to the 2003, we had guys like myself, Paul Grayson and Mike Catt there.

"It was nice to know we had a balance of guys who knew what was what.

"To be honest, no amount of experience will prepare you for that unknown intensity and that quantum leap that a World Cup throws into the balance."

England's disastrous 2011 World Cup campaign in New Zealand was beset by troubles off the field and a lack of direction on it.

Wilkinson believes England under Lancaster exude far greater direction and stability than Martin Johnson's crop in 2011.

He said: "In the years leading up to 2011, with experimentation came sways in game-plan and understanding, because the team was somehow having to fit round the player as much as the player was fitting into the team.

"That's not what I see now.

"I see a real connection between the players.

"I had the chance to speak to some of the coaches after the France game.

"I saw some of the players too though I didn't speak to them too directly, I saw them and just enjoyed the obvious unity there.

"You would have to say all that bleeds from the top.

"Stuart Lancaster has got to live his own beliefs, his own values and code of conduct, but you've also got to chose the right people and make them work for you.

"It's about building connections between players, the best teams have that and I think you're starting to see that."

Wilkinson faced Gloucester's Leicester-bound Freddie Burns in pre-season action when Toulon overwhelmed the Cherry and Whites at Stade Felix Mayol.

The former Newcastle Falcon took the time to hand Gloucester's attacking talent some advice, and believes the 23-year-old is capable of making the international grade.

Backing Bath's outside-half Ford to shine given chances too, Wilkinson said: "I'm more than confident England have the depth.

"I've seen quite a bit of both; I've not played against George but I have played against Freddie.

"There are young guys who understand the game who don't say they can't do certain things.

"They are saying, 'I want to play international rugby, which means I've got to make it work'.

"These guys are saying 'right, if you want me to do that, no problem, if you want me to do something else, I can do that too'.

"In the past people might have been hesitant to put their necks on the block, these guys are young, but they are up there saying, 'this is what I do'."

After launching the 2015 World Cup volunteer programme on Wednesday, Wilkinson also hinted at signing a new playing contract with Toulon.

Welcoming big-money recruits Leigh Halfpenny and James O'Connor to Toulon for next term, Wilkinson said he is relishing an unofficial coaching element to his role at the club.

"I have known for a long time that my role is developing into one where I spent most of my time during the week working with other guys," he added.

"I am still trying to get better day and night, but I like the fact those guys are coming and going to experience what I have been experiencing."

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