Byline: CHRIS JONES
THE young shoulders of Jonny Wilkinson already carry a ludicrous weight of expectation and the load he takes into the RBS Six Nations clash with Italy would crush a lesser man.
Given that Wilkinson's frame has been subjected to repeated assaults - not all of them legal - it is remarkable the 23-year-old is so upbeat about captaining his country for the first time.
After all, he is England's playmaker, points machine, talisman and now captain. If that does not put him top of the Italian hit list at Twickenham on Sunday, then he will be very lucky.
An Achilles tendon injury has forced Martin Johnson to hand over the captaincy for this match and though the Leicester lock will be back to terrorise the Scots in two weeks' time, Wilkinson's elevation is all about England's rugby future.
Barring further damage to those shoulders, Wilkinson should be able to look back on Sunday in the years to come as the starting point of his period as the country's rugby figurehead.
Forget about Nasser Hussain and David Beckham, this nuggety outside-half with the slight lisp is the man who will inspire the country's youngsters to achieve something great on the sports field.
Wilkinson is one year older than Will Carling when the Harlequins centre was made captain but light years ahead in terms of experience and rugby nous. He handled yesterday's first captain's press conference with assurance and gently reminded the media in the library at the team's hotel that he interrupted a 45-minute kick session to be with them.
The point Wilkinson was making gave a clear indication that while others believe saddling him with the captaincy is one job too many, the man himself is delighted to live out his boyhood dream.
For Italy, it is likely to be a nightmare.
Wilkinson is just six short of registering a century of points against the Azzurri in only his fifth match against them and goes into what should be an easy win with an average of 23 points in these contests. That is even better than his average over the 40 caps he has amassed - 15.5 points.
Although Italy beat a desperate Welsh team at the start of the championship and will throw everything at England in the opening quarter, the bottom line is they are not good enough to beat the game's elite.
If England garner their usual haul of points then a final score of 61-15 will be seen on the Twickenham scoreboard at the final whistle. That's the average result in the last three games.
The sell-out crowd will expect a landslide although Clive Woodward's men are wary of raising expectation, especially as the Italians have been getting outside help and England have brought in World Cup hopefuls Josh Lewsey (fullback), James Simpson-Daniel (wing), Mike Tindall (centre), Danny Grewcock (lock) and Joe Worsley (flanker). …