Strettle up for the Irish challenge

David Strettle is braced for “a baptism of fire” at Croke Park after being handed one of the toughest jobs in European rugby – replacing Jason Robinson.


England boss Brian Ashton has again underlined his fearless selection streak by throwing 23-year-old Harlequins wing Strettle in at the deep end as the world champions put their unbeaten Six Nations record on the line.


Ashton could have promoted substitute back Mathew Tait, or looked at experienced pair Mark Cueto and Ben Cohen as options.


But Strettle has won the head coach’s vote just six months into his first season of Guinness Premiership rugby.


Robinson has not recovered from a neck injury sustained in training at Bath University on Wednesday, while England are still fretting over the fitness of fly-half superstar Jonny Wilkinson.


Wilkinson missed training yesterday because of a tight right hamstring, which proved sufficiently troublesome for England to summon 35-year-old Mike Catt as cover.


“Jonny went out for training yesterday, warmed up and his hamstring felt a little bit tight. He stopped immediately as a precaution,” Ashton said.


A decision on Wilkinson’s fitness might be left until tomorrow, but Ashton has confirmed his 21-year-old Newcastle colleague Toby Flood will start should England be forced into making another change.


Between them, Wilkinson and Robinson have scored 57 of England’s 62 points during this season’s Six Nations, which illustrates their importance to a team that has not won away since February last year.


And if Flood is called up, then it would mean England facing their toughest test of the tournament with four backs – Flood, Strettle, centre Andy Farrell and full-back Olly Morgan – who have just seven caps between them.


“These things happen at all levels of rugby – players do get injured during the week – and fortunately, we’ve got a squad to compensate for that,” Ashton added.


“David Strettle is a lad on form, who is scoring tries. He has got pace, good feet and is a tremendous finisher.


“Speaking to people like Jim Mallinder (England Saxons coach), he says David is someone who remains unflustered on big occasions, and that will certainly help him here tomorrow.


“I have no qualms about picking young players and new players, as I’ve shown recently with Olly Morgan and Nick Easter.”


Warrington-born Strettle, who played rugby league in junior school and was a good enough teenage soccer prospect to attract Manchester City’s attention, joined Quins at the start of this season from Rotherham.


He has scored nine tries in 14 games for Quins, and featured in England Saxons colours against Italy A and Ireland A earlier this month, He also helped England land a fourth successive Hong Kong Sevens title last year.


“It will be a baptism of fire, but it is going to be superb,” said Strettle.


“Obviously, I will be nervous – I don’t know many players who don’t get nervous before games – but it is a case of trying to keep those nerves under control.


“It is fantastic to get your first cap, and the fact it will be at Croke Park makes it a bit special.


“Playing for my club, the England sevens team and the Saxons has played a big part in me getting into the England squad and now making my debut.


“I see all of those experiences as part of the build-up to the really big days, and Saturday is definitely one of those.”


Having lost Robinson, England can ill-afford to see Wilkinson go the same way as they prepare for what skipper Phil Vickery believes will be “a massive challenge”.


Ireland, still bristling from a Croke Park defeat to France last time out, are considerably strengthened by the return of fit-again backs Brian O’Driscoll and Peter Stringer, which further highlights Wilkinson’s importance to England.


“We are disappointed to have lost Jason, and we all ho

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