Ashbrooke’s must-win trip

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SUNDERLAND will hope to finally beat the weather this weekend, but they go into Saturday’s must-win top-of-the-league clash against Whitley Bay Rockcliff having not played a league game since January 4.

With only one friendly in that period, the Ashbrooke side have only played two games this year but will need to be at their best if they want to keep up their promotion challenge, having slipped to fourth in Durham and Northumberland Division Two following their period of inactivity.

The elements may play into Sunderland’s hands by reducing the impact that Rockcliff’s exciting backs can have on the game, while it is ironic that the Wearsiders name just about their strongest backline of the season on a day when the battle is likely to be won in the trenches.

Up front, the only absentee is John Drummond, who is away on a stag do. Drummond has been the focal point of Sunderland’s line-out all season, but, in Andy Wordsworth, Sunderland have a ready-made replacement jumper who will ensure Drummond is not missed too much.

Alan Ross, Pete Harrison and Damion Martinez make up the front row. The inclusion of Wordsworth sees Jake Belfield switch to blindside flanker, with Wordsworth joining captain Peter Carter in the second row. Martin Watt and Bryan Finlay make up the back row with Belfield.

Sunderland name their strongest half-back pair, with Gav Stirling at scrum-half and Tom Townend at fly-half. In the centres, the combination of Harry Levison and Matt Goforth combines power and pace, with the back three made up of Pete Garvie, Sam Vaughan and Michael Heffernan.

Sunderland i (away to Whitley Bay Rockcliff, meet 12.15pm): Martinez, Harrison, Ross, Carter, Wordsworth, Belfield, Finlay, Watt, Stirling, Townend, Vaughan, Levison, Goforth, Garvie, Heffernan. Reps: Geehan, Sumner, Brace

H Freddie Burns and George Ford need international action now to handle the “quantum leap” of a World Cup campaign, according to Jonny Wilkinson.

World Cup-winner Wilkinson believes England have plenty of fly-half depth behind Owen Farrell, but admits experience is another matter.

The 34-year-old has urged head coach Stuart Lancaster to blood playmakers Burns and Ford as soon as possible, to bolster England’s impending bid for World Cup glory on home soil.

Backing England for a fruitful campaign in 2015, Wilkinson said Lancaster’s squad boasts far stronger foundations than in 2011.

“There is definitely back-up, but with experience, it is difficult,” said Wilkinson of England’s fly-half stocks.

“It is that old argument that you can’t play because you are not experienced enough. How do you ever play then without giving someone their first shot?

“Building up to the 2003, we had guys like myself, Paul Grayson and Mike Catt there. It was nice to know we had a balance of guys who knew what was what.

“To be honest, no amount of experience will prepare you for that unknown intensity and that quantum leap that a World Cup throws into the balance.”

Wilkinson faced Gloucester’s Leicester-bound Freddie Burns in pre-season.

Backing Bath’s outside-half Ford to shine given chances too, Wilkinson said: “I’m more than confident England have the depth.

“I’ve seen quite a bit of both. They are young guys who understand the game who don’t say they can’t do certain things. In the past people might have been hesitant to put their necks on the block, these guys are young, but they are up there saying, ‘this is what I do’.”