'Wilko' closing in on record

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LONDON, February 23- Jonny Wilkinson may no longer command a place in England's starting line-up but the veteran fly-half could yet make history on Saturday if he comes off the bench to face France.

Wilkinson needs only a single successful kick at goal to pass Dan Carter as international rugby’s all-time record points-scorer after three conversions against Italy earlier this month took his tally to 1,187.

If recent history is anything to go by, few would bet against Wilkinson regaining his record this weekend: the Toulon No.10 has a knack of kicking important points against France.

In England’s 2003 World Cup semi-final he contributed all of his side’s points in a 24-7 victory, and four years later he broke French hearts in the semi-finals again, kicking nine points in a 14-9 victory.

Although the impressive performances of Toby Flood have kept Wilkinson out of the starting line-up, England’s management are adamant that the 31-year-old has an important role to play.

England attack coach Brian Smith spoke this week of a "Wilkinson effect" that is capable of unnerving opponents.

That was in evidence in the 59-13 victory over Italy, when Wilkinson’s arrival onto the pitch was greeted by the loudest roar of the afternoon.

"You weren’t sure whether they were cheering Toby off or Jonny coming on," Smith said.

"Even down in Wales there’s a Wilkinson effect, there’s no doubt about it. The challenge for us as coaches is to make sure we play that card at the right time. It’s always a factor."

Wilkinson, the hero of England’s 2003 World Cup win, meanwhile says he is slowly adjusting to his role as a bit-part player.

"Naturally without ever wanting to or expecting to, you get used to the way things work," said Wilkinson.

"It’s a sub-conscious thing. Even walking around the hotel and walking to the game on match day you start to realise things are a little bit different.

"For me the most challenging aspect has been changing the perspective at the age of 31. The last time I was in this position was at the start of my career.

"I’ve taken great inspiration from guys like Mike Catt and Paul Grayson.

"I remember being in the team when these guys weren’t and the way they helped me. That’s what I’m trying to do now."

In many respects, the wheel has turned full circle for Wilkinson, who used to coach Flood when he was a schoolboy. The two players later became team-mates at Newcastle Falcons.

"I’ve been around with Toby for years. Newcastle had a community schools program which meant players were allotted a school to coach for a few weeks. His school was mine," he said.

"When I was about 24 I was coaching him when he was at school. You could tell then he was a very talented player.

"Not long after that he arrived at Newcastle and then we were in the same team, talking tactics.

"I was injured and he was 10 playing very well. We were at the 2007 World Cup together.

"Throughout that time he’s been growing and growing. It’s important that progression continues because it will stand England in good stead."

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