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January 30, 2007 2:00 am

Ashton banks on safe return for Wilkinson

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Jonny Wilkinson will return for England after more than three years when they open their RBS Six Nations campaign at home to Scotland on Saturday, writes Huw Richards.

Wilkinson starts at outside-half in a team dramatically reshaped by new coach Brian Ashton. Only four starters survive from the 15 whose 25-14 loss to South Africa in November doomed predecessor Andy Robinson. Among them Josh Lewsey moves from full-back to wing while Martin Corry's survival at number eight may owe something to an untimely injury for Bristol's Dan Ward-Smith, who had a scan on his knee yesterday.

Recalling Wilkinson is a calculated risk. He has played only one match, as a replacement for Newcastle at Leicester on Saturday, since returning from the most recent of the extraordinary succession of injuries that has cost him 30 caps since his drop-goal won the World Cup for England in November 2003.

But for most of that time England had an admirable deputy in Charlie Hodgson, not in Wilkinson's class as a kicker, but with added range as an attacker. With the Sale man injured in his turn, the choice is between Wilkinson and gifted novices. The cheering for Wilkinson at Leicester, rarely visitor-friendly, showed the depth of English yearning for his safe return.

It is a measure of Wilkinson's celebrity that his return will command headlines ahead of a debut at centre for Andrew Farrell - in League at least as distinguished a player as Wilkinson is in Union, and almost as freakishly injury-prone. Farrell, whose last international was at prop against the Australian rugby league team, will line up in the same three-quarter line as his longtime Wigan and Great Britain colleague Jason Robinson, back after coming out of international retirement, and the recalled Mike Tindall. Iain Balshaw is at full-back. Harry Ellis returns at scrum-half, while Magnus Lund has won the battle to balance England's back-row as the specialist openside alongside Corry and Joe Worsley. Perhaps the least anticipated selection is Leicester's Lewis Deacon at lock, while the unluckiest exclusion is Wasps lock Tom Palmer, once more benched while Danny Grewcock starts. Skipper Phil Vickery and Perry Freshwater will be front-row team-mates three weeks after scrummaging against each other in a Heineken Cup tie, while George Chuter starts at hooker following the ruling out of Steve Thompson with a neck injury. Vickery, Tindall and Corry will all be winning their 50th caps.

* FOOTBALL Premiership leaders Manchester United will host rivals Reading, and champions Chelsea will be at home to either Norwich City or Blackpool in the FA Cup fifth round.

Monday's draw gave Bolton added incentive to beat Arsenal in their fourth-round replay on February 14, with the winner to host Blackburn.

The other all-Premier League tie will be a London derby, with Fulham hosting Tottenham Hotspur.

The draw was kind to Middlesbrough, who first have to settle a home replay against Bristol City on February 13, with a tie awaiting at home to West Bromwich Albion.

Watford will similarly be favourites against Ipswich Town, as will Manchester City for their local north-west trip to Preston North End. At least one Championship club will reach the quarter-finals after Plymouth Argyle were drawn against Derby County. The ties will be played on the weekend of February 17-18.

Meanwhile, Alex McLeish has been confirmed as Scotland's new manager, signing a contract to take charge of the national team until 2010, when the next World Cup will be played in South Africa.

Walter Smith unexpectedly resigned as national coach earlier this month to take charge of Rangers, McLeish's former club.

The immediate task for the former international is to maintain Scotland's winning momentum.

McLeish, 48, ruled out making any major changes to the squad ahead of the Euro 2008 qualifiers against Georgia and Italy at the end of March, when Scotland will attempt to remain at the top of Group B.

Feyenoord have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne against their exclusion from the Uefa Cup. The CAS ruling - due by February 9 - will be watched by Tottenham, who had been granted a bye to the last 16 after being pitched against Feyenoord prior to their exclusion.

Middlesbrough boss Gareth Southgate will welcome captain George Boateng back from suspension for tonight's tough Barclays Premiership trip to Portsmouth.

Striker Caleb Folan goes straight into the Wigan squad for the clash at Reading following his £500,000 move from Chesterfield last week.

Liverpool could have midfielders Mohamed Sissoko and Bolo Zenden back in their squad for the trip to West Ham.

In transfer news, Championship leaders Derby signed the Blackburn defender James McEveley for an initial fee of £600,000. Sunderland completed the signing of Stern John from Coventry on a 2½-year deal. Reading signed Australian midfielder Oliver Bozanic on a 2½-year contract.

Newcastle United were last night working to tie up their loan swoop for United States defender Oguchi Onyewu after he arrived on Tyneside for a medical.

United have given the green light to coach Nigel Pearson to work with the England Under-21 squad.

* SAILING Peter Gilmour, the Australian match racing specialist, will coach America's Cup defending champions Alinghi, sailing with them over the next few months off Valencia, Spain, to sharpen their performance before the contest starts on June 23, writes Simon Greaves .

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