Toby Flood: Alert to England's need
The old hand among the contenders for the red-rose fly-half role won't be kicking himself if he misses out on a Six Nations place – but if the call comes to add to his 53 caps, the Leicester player will be ready to play his part. Chris Hewett talks to a seasoned campaigner with a laissez-faire approach
At the ripe old age of 27, the Leicester outside-half Toby Flood is the elder statesman among England's playmaking candidates for the forthcoming Six Nations. He is only six years older than Owen Farrell, the icicle-veined man-child who currently performs the No 10 duties, and a mere five years senior to the button-bright newcomer Freddie Burns, yet he is of a different generation – not quite a Rolling Stone to their Dizzee Rascal, but you get the drift.
Does this alarm him? Depress him, perhaps? Not remotely. Flood's rich experience as a red-rose midfielder – he has 53 caps, won in good times and bad – has given him a deep awareness of the strengths and weaknesses in his own game. This is a precious asset: as a celebrated American columnist once noted, a man starts cutting wisdom teeth the first time he bites off more than he can chew. Flood has bitten into a whole lot more than either of his rivals.
More importantly still, he is completely at ease with himself. "I've been through all the scenarios," he says. "The Jonny Wilkinson scenario, the Charlie Hodgson scenario." What about the Danny Cipriani scenario? "Oh yes… I forgot that one! Yes, I've been through the Danny Cipriani scenario. And what I've taken from all that is an understanding that you have to live in the moment.
"I suppose I'm a laissez-faire type: not in terms of desire – I still want to play as much international rugby as I can – but in the sense that I'm very relaxed about it these days. It's a nice place to be in, not letting things affect you."
Truth to tell, Flood never fell prey to the fear and loathing that affects so many sportsmen at elite level, even when he was new to the England set-up. He suffered disappointments under all three of his previous national coaches – he eased Andy Robinson's path to the dole queue by throwing a costly interception pass on his debut against Argentina; he was left out of the initial 2007 World Cup squad by Brian Ashton, who then considered him "too quiet by half" even though he has always been the most articulate of individuals; he was marginalised by Martin Johnson at precisely the wrong moment at the 2011 global gathering in New Zealand – and it may be that the current boss, Stuart Lancaster, intends to give Farrell a long run in the side. If that turns out to be the case, Flood will live with it.
"I'm just not fussed about the circus that has grown up around rugby these days," he continues. "It can be a massive distraction, all the talk about who's favourite for this position and who's likely to be playing somewhere else. I've never been one to get really wound up about that side of things, although there were times in the past when I was aware of it lurking in the back of my mind. Now I simply don't concern myself with it.
"The way I look at it, I'm very fortunate to have played for England as often as I have. If you'd seen me playing as a 16-year-old, when I was really rubbish, you'd never have dreamed that you'd be writing about me one day."
If Flood is at the head of the No 10 queue age-wise, he occupies the middle ground stylistically as a kind of halfway-house half-back. For all his many gifts, temperamental as well as technical, Farrell is not the quickest thing on two legs and prefers to operate from deep. Burns, on the other hand, is a bag-of-tricks merchant who has the priceless ability to put width on the ball while standing eyeball to eyeball with the opposition. Flood can do it both ways and as he is also, in common with Farrell, a fine defender, if nowhere near as Attila-like when it comes to the
rough stuff, he is far from a spent force at Test level.
The one thing all three contenders have in common is an outstanding kicking game, especially when it comes to shooting for the sticks. In Heineken Cup rugby this season, both Flood and Farrell have strike-rate percentages in the mid-70s, while Burns, playing for Gloucester in the less pressurised surroundings of the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup, is up there in the clouds on 88 per cent. In the Premiership, both Burns and Farrell are on 80 per cent plus, which is pretty much where Flood would be but for a rough night at Worcester earlier this month. Currently, he is 73 per cent reliable in the bread-and-butter competition.
"While I wouldn't want to be rude about the surface at Worcester, it was like striking the ball off a mattress," he says of that awkward outing at Sixways a little over a fortnight ago. "I thought everything was spot on, only to find everything dropping short. But I've had my really good days in both the Premiership and in Europe, so I'm not complaining. I'm perfectly happy with my goal-kicking."
He needs to stay that way, because Farrell is on a molten streak when it comes to bisecting the posts from anywhere and everywhere. His performance for Saracens in the important match against Racing Métro in Nantes last weekend was nothing short of jaw-dropping: 10 penalty shots and a conversion, each of them bang on the money. Of his last 24 kicks in all rugby, be it for club or country, the youngster has missed precisely… none.
"It's a hell of a run," Flood concedes. "Owen's performance against Racing was astounding. He couldn't miss, could he? It goes like that sometimes. Then you have a day like Dan Biggar [the Ospreys outside-half] had against us last Sunday. Post, post, bar, drift left, drift right… I've never seen anything like it for near-misses. For someone to go so close with a really tough set of kicks shows how much things have improved. Partly, it's because of ball technology – you wouldn't believe how far some of them fly nowadays – and partly it's down to the amount of practice we do. We're pretty dedicated, you know."
Flood accepts that Leicester, two-time European champions currently suffering a lean spell in Heineken Cup rugby, are struggling for fluency. "While we felt pretty hollow after the draw against Ospreys because we'd put ourselves in a position to win late in the game, it's also true to say that they played some really good stuff against us and were in the ascendancy for much of the contest," he acknowledges. "We're in an annoying situation: certain facets of our game are really good, but there seems to be a counterweight pulling us down. There's something stopping us putting everything together and kicking on."
A performance of the curate's egg variety against Toulouse tomorrow will not be sufficient to earn the Midlanders a place in the knock-out stage of the world's best club tournament. The Frenchmen are hardly in vintage form themselves, but no team with a call on so many difference-making players – Patricio Albacete, Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles up front; Clément Poitrenaud, Vincent Clerc and the former All Black stand-off Luke McAlister outside the scrum – are ever anything but petrifyingly dangerous.
"They'll play their usual forward-dominated, momentum-based game, attacking the 10 and 12 channels before going wide," Flood says, acutely aware that he will be the man occupying the first of those channels. "They're very powerful, very experienced and they know how to do enough to win these big games. But we're good at doing enough ourselves: we've shown that recently. At least it's a simple equation this weekend. We don't have to worry about getting a bonus point. We have to win, full stop."
Has he ever played against McAlister, who, at times in his career, looked as though he might be something seriously special? "You know, I really can't remember," Flood admits. "That's terrible, isn't it? I must have done, I'm sure, but I can't think when. You blank out the bad days, don't you? Perhaps that's what I'm doing."
Like every other player, he has had his share of bad days. Happily, he is as good as anyone at rationalising them. The England No 10 shirt may be Farrell's to lose right now, but the national team could easily find themselves in need of Flood's "laissez-faire" qualities before the Six Nations is out. If they do, he'll be there for them.
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