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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions