Woodward: Jonny will deliver today

Lions chief Sir Clive Woodward has backed Jonny Wilkinson to prosper in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of today's first Test showdown with the All Blacks.

Lions chief Sir Clive Woodward has backed Jonny Wilkinson to prosper in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of today's first Test showdown with the All Blacks.

Wilkinson will return to the full-blown Test arena after 19 months spent kicking his heels in frustration following a succession of injuries.

And while the position might be unfamiliar - inside centre, rather than fly-half - Woodward expects his superstar World Cup-winner to deliver.

"Jonny is at his best in these big games," said Woodward.

"He is the player I want out there when the pressure is at its greatest, and his state (mentally and physically) is very, very strong.

"The kick against Argentina in Cardiff last month nailed any doubts about his mental state."

Wilkinson's last-gasp strike allowed the Lions to escape with a 25-25 Millennium Stadium draw before they headed to New Zealand, and he will once again have goalkicking responsibility in a predicted wet-weather encounter today.

Woodward made all the right noises in his final pre-match press conference yesterday, as the Lions target a first of two victories required to end 34 years of Test series failure in New Zealand.

He insisted he was comfortable with a starting line-up lambasted in some quarters as negative, especially without silky-skilled Welsh back Gavin Henson.

"This is a huge pressure game," he added. "We are here to win, and it is about walking off the pitch with more points than the team in black. Sport remembers winners, not losers.

"It was a difficult selection process, but I am delighted with the team I've picked.

"When I was in charge of England, I felt a huge amount of responsibility, and I feel even more responsibility doing this job, because you are representing four countries. It would have been easy to make some popular decisions (in selection), but I am not here to be popular, I am here to win a Test match."

With Christchurch painted red by an invasion of Lions fans, Woodward is relishing the atmosphere for one of rugby's most eagerly-awaited clashes since the professional era dawned.

Among the many good luck messages received at the Lions' city centre base have been support from Prime Minister Tony Blair, his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern and Springboks coach Jake White, while Woodward revealed that coach Ian McGeechan will present the players with their Test jerseys today.

McGeechan is a veteran of six Lions tours as a player and coach, and Woodward said: "Ian is the ultimate in terms of what the Lions is about. It is a big occasion, and I cannot think of anyone better."

By his own admission, though, Woodward will send the Lions out at Jade Stadium to face what he accepts is world rugby's most professional team.

"Common sense says we should not win because we are up against the most professional team in the world," he added.

The pressure will be at a level that probably only England's World Cup-winning contingent in this Lions squad have experienced before, with huge performances expected from the likes of Wilkinson, prop Julian White, flanker Neil Back and number eight Martin Corry. Tour stats show five wins from six starts, but none of those were achieved with any great pomp or swagger, unlike the 2001 Lions' first Test build-up that culminated in a spectacular 29-13 triumph against Australia.

Woodward though, in the final throes of his rugby coaching career, is quietly confident and characteristically upbeat.

"Pressure is a great word, because you know some people thrive on it," he said.

"That is why I am pleased with the Lions team. We have very good people who have won World Cups, and the Welsh last season really delivered with their Grand Slam.

"I just think you are at your best when the pressure is at its greatest, and that is the true definition of champion sports people.

"It is about playing under pressure, as the importance of this game is huge."

A Lions victory would set them up for only their second Test series success over New Zealand in almost 100 years, but the history books show just three Test match wins on the South Island, compared with 12 defeats.

It is anticipated the Lions will play a kicking-orientated game, utilising fly-half Stephen Jones and Wilkinson to play for territory, then hoping their seasoned pack can grind down the All Blacks.

On this occasion though, it is likely to prove beyond even a coach of Woodward's Midas reputation, with logic dictating an All Blacks triumph.


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