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RUGBY UNION: We've no worries over captain Wilko; EXCLUSIVE: ENGLAND v ITALY: Jonny's a born leader.

Byline: RICHARD HILL

WHEN Martin Johnson pulled out of today's game against Italy he left a colossal pair of boots to fill as captain, but although he is one of the smallest players in the side I know Jonny Wilkinson is up to the job.

He might only be 23 but he is coming up to middle-aged status in international rugby terms with 40 caps and 600-odd points in the bag.

Jonny has been in the squad for five years and as far as we are concerned he is a veteran.

People say Martin is a big leader, and they are spot-on. I have played a lot of rugby under him for England and on two Lions tours and he always leads by example and looks players straight in the eye so they would walk through walls for him.

But you didn't need to be Mystic Meg to know Jonny would be England captain one day. His dedication is legendary, although his rugby brain sometimes gets overlooked in all the hype about his marathon kicking practice sessions.

He is a big thinker about the game - rugby is not always a case of going to the gym to pump iron or smashing balls around in training. You have to use your brain occasionally and Jonny is one of the deepest thinkers of the lot.

As fly-half he is part of the team's brains trust on the field and some of the usual suspects will be there to offer their words of wisdom today.

Matt Dawson is back at scrum-half and Lawrence Dallaglio starts again in the back row, so that's two former captains with a wealth of experience who will be ready to offer advice. Add in Will Greenwood and a couple of the forwards and it shows how many natural leaders we have on the pitch at any one time.

Our team shows a few enforced changes from the one that won in Cardiff and some people have said it is inexperienced. But that is just not true. All the guys who have come in like Joe Worsley, Josh Lewsey, Danny Grewcock and James Simpson-Daniel know what it is like to play for England. Joe and Danny have around 60 caps between them so they won't let anyone down.

All the boys know what a big year this is with the World Cup looming. There is so much pressure for places that one bad game could cost you a place on the plane to Australia. Every game is massive from now on, and we may need all the knowhow we've got today. In my experience the Italians are a physical and direct side with a big set of forwards who set the platform for Alessandro Troncon, the scrum-half.

Troncon is one of the best number nines in Europe and is an expert at keeping the pack's momentum by getting the big men to run hard with the ball. He will keep us back row boys busy.

Although our scorelines against the Italians make it look like a walk in the park they have given us some of our toughest periods in recent years. In 2001 at Twickenham they scored two tries and were leading after 20 minutes, and they gave us the hurry-up early on in Rome last year.

Every time we have managed to pull away in the second half but under their new coach, the former All Black winger John Kirwan, it looks like the Italians have learnt how to play for 80 minutes.

When Jonah Lomu started running through people he was tagged 'The New Kirwan' and Kirwan caused a bit of a stir when he started playing flanker Mauro Bergamasco on the wing in this year's Six Nations.

Bergamasco is one of the best back row players in Europe. He always gets stuck in, has got enough pace to outsprint the Scottish backs as he did at Murrayfield a couple of years ago and has a big physical presence. So Kirwan has stuck him on the wing to try to create an Italian version of Lomu.

It is very rare for a member of the back row union to defect to the ranks of the three-quarters and Bergamasco's switch was more of a talking point this week than my move.

I'm playing openside today which makes it a full house of back row positions in the first three games of the tournament. It is the position I am most familiar with of the three because I played most of my early senior rugby with Saracens at number seven.

We have knocked a few heads together this week about our performances in the first two games. We are very conscious that we have not played great rugby so far and we've been working hard on trying to get our attacking game to gel at our base in Bagshot.

We get looked after superbly at the hotel where we train, but I have noticed the menus stop after the main course and there is no chance of a pudding.

It was a relief to go to a sponsors lunch at Twickenham on Tuesday and get stuck into the sweet trolley before being bussed off to sugar-free Surrey. I haven't seen a dessert since - so I can't wait to get stuck into the game today.

Interview: ADAM HATHAWAY

LAST EIGHT MEETINGS

Apr 2002, Rome, Italy 9 England 45

Feb 2001, Twickenham, England 80 Italy 23

Mar 2000, Rome, Italy 12 England 59

Oct 1999, Twickenham, England 67 Italy 7

Nov 1998, Huddersfield, England 23 Italy 15

Nov 1996, Twickenham, England 54 Italy 21

May 1995, Durban, England 27 Italy 20

Oct 1991, Twickenham, England 36 Italy 6

HOW THEY'LL LINE UP

ENGLAND ITALY

J.LEWSEY MI.BERGAMASCO

J.SIMPSON-DANIEL MA.BERGAMASCO

W.GREENWOOD VACCARI

M.TINDALL RAINERI

D.LUGER DALLAN

J.WILKINSON PEZ

M.DAWSON TRONCON

G.ROWNTREE DE CARLI

S.THOMPSON FESTUCCIA

R.MORRIS MARTINEZ

D.GREWCOCK BEZZI

B.KAY GIACHERI

J.WORSLEY DE ROSSI

R.HILL PHILLIPS

L.DALLAGLIO PERSICO

Kick-off 4pm

Live on Sky Sports 1 from 3.30pm

CAPTION(S):

DEEP THINKER: Jonny Wilkinson's dedication is legendary, says Richard Hill; JOHNSON: A tough act to follow
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Mar 9, 2003
Words:1031
Previous Article:Football: Stam in Italy call for Giggs.
Next Article:RUGBY UNION: Caer-ful, Philly on a mission.


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