Jonny Wilkinson: Mastering a new art: how to play second fiddle

England's World Cup-winner is not used to sitting on the bench so he wants his place back – but only on merit

Brian Smith, the coach with primary responsibility for ensuring England do more in a game of rugby than kick the ball into the middle of next week, believes the national team are still 40 per cent shy of realising their full attacking potential. As they were at least 90 per cent shy this time last year – their Six Nations performances in Rome and Edinburgh were more torturous than anything dreamt up by the Spanish Inquisition – this is quite an improvement. "We have players aged 25 and under who are bringing unbelievable energy and lots of raw talent to the group," the Australian said yesterday, before adding: "We're looking to harness it, not squeeze the life out of it."

All of which leaves the 31-year-old Jonny Wilkinson in an uncomfortable place: namely, on the replacements' bench. The World Cup-winning outside-half may be the only player since Jonah Lomu with the pulling power to turn a small crowd into a full house – just ask the business managers in Toulon how much the great goalkicker means to the local sporting economy – but he has spent the best part of a year playing second fiddle to Toby Flood, who falls neatly into the "25 and under, energetic, talented" category and is the man at the heart of this sudden flowering of the red-rose game.

"The last time I was in this position," Wilkinson replied when pressed on the shift in the balance of power at No 10, "was long ago, at the start of my career. It's a big challenge, having to begin again at 31. I take inspiration from people like Mike Catt and Paul Grayson, older players who couldn't get a place in the England team when I was in the side but stuck at it and ended up playing in World Cup tournaments.

"It's about continuing to learn, continuing to grow. Obviously, I want to get back in the starting team. Equally, I don't want to be there if I don't merit it."

Smith was far too cute to be lured into admitting that Flood's greater attacking prowess – his superior running game, his ability to play flat to the line as well as deep in the pocket, his speed of thought – is the single most important ingredient in England's "new rugby". Describing the two stand-offs as "very different players" was as far as he would go in terms of comparison, and he insisted that Wilkinson still had much to offer. "Jonny is like a martial arts student, constantly trying to achieve technical mastery, to be complete," the coach said. "His skills are superb, yet he's always trying to be better. Toby tries to emulate him, and he's well on his way."

Yet this master-student relationship – a link that stretches back to Flood's schooldays in the north-east of England, when Wilkinson ran a few coaching sessions as part of the Newcastle club's community outreach programme – is history. There has been a passing of the torch, even though Wilkinson passed it reluctantly and would rather like it back. If, as Smith declared, England are really serious about harnessing youthful energy, there is no obvious prospect of them changing tack unless injury intervenes.

Wilkinson was characteristically generous in discussing his former club-mate and current rival. "It's important that Toby continues to progress because it stands England rugby in very good stead," he said. "As I've grown older, I've gained a greater understanding of the things that set some people apart. Toby had those things when I first came across him during his schooldays.

"Part of it is natural ability, part of it is down to hard work. People like Toby and Mathew Tait [another Newcastle prodigy who played in the last World Cup final in 2007 before falling out of favour with the current England regime] had something special about them at a young age. They could take everything in their stride while showing everyone else how it's done."

Yet if Flood is an automatic choice in the pivot position as England move towards the forthcoming World Cup in New Zealand, it is highly likely that when the close games come round, his old mentor will be on the field at the last knockings. And after the runaway victory over an overmatched Italian side at Twickenham 11 days ago, this weekend's contest with France could be very close indeed. If the two sides are within a score of each other deep in the final quarter, the home coaches will not hesitate to turn to Wilkinson, who has spent the last season and a half playing club rugby on the far side of the Channel and knows how the French think.

Certainly, he was far from surprised at the news that Marc Lièvremont, the coach of Les Bleus, had made significant changes to the side that left Dublin with a backs-to-the-wall victory in the last round of matches: Sébastien Chabal for Julien Bonnaire in the back row; Dimitri Yachvili for Morgan Parra at scrum-half; Yannick Jauzion for Damien Traille at inside centre; and a return to the left wing for Vincent Clerc, with Maxime Médard moving to full-back at the expense of Clément Poitrenaud.

"They're not simply picking the players they think are good enough, they're trying to find the best combinations, the people who work best together," Wilkinson explained. "Playing over there week by week, you can go to any ground in France and, out of the blue, come up against someone who is suddenly up for selection. They have so many options, and so many facets to their rugby.

"When they play as they did against Scotland, they're scary: one moment, you think you're in a good position to score; the next, you're back under your own posts. Then, they can go to Ireland and win without playing well. That's when they show their pragmatic side, and when it all comes together, they're so dangerous.

"If they do everything they're capable of on Saturday, we'll need to show the very best of ourselves."