The hair on his head is spiky but a long way from punk. He is bright-eyed and bushy-eyebrowed, chatty and good-natured. He has a rare talent and is the incumbent England fly-half. Another couple of years of this and surely Toby Flood will be a national celebrity? The question is of course provocative and it is posed in a canteen across the road from Leicester Tigers' HQ, where even as we speak a chastened forward is getting stitched up after one of the Premiership champions' traditional sessions of train-as-you-play. And the answer it receives is accompanied by a hearty laugh. "No! I never got in rugby to be a celebrity," says Flood. "Any personal gain is purely in a rugby sense, and my development as a player, rather than as an individual off the field. It is the weirdest thing to be stopped in the street and all I say is, 'Do I know you'?"
He goes on to confirm that these moments of public recognition are far from daily occurrences, though they are more frequent since he moved to Leicester from Newcastle two years ago and they are "very nice" when they happen. In a week when the England manager, Martin Johnson, hinted that Flood would start ahead of Jonny Wilkinson in the summer Tests against Australia, and which today sees Leicester contest a Premiership semi-final with Bath stuffed with international hopefuls, your mind wonders to recent encounters with some of the national side's other No 10s. The neo-Buddhist, relentlessly self-analytical Wilkinson; the wounded Danny Cipriani with his world-is-against-me air; Shane Geraghty, whose dry humour is an antidote to the habit shared with all the contenders of finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time due to injury. Johnson, who would rather stick pins in his eyes than make a throwaway remark, bracketed Flood last Tuesday in a "leadership group" of half a dozen players; a new development for the 24-year-old with 29 caps. If there is a tide in the affairs of these England men, you feel it is being taken by Flood.
If so, it is a turnaround from the start of the calendar year when Wilkinson, who had been picked last autumn while Flood was recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, was first choice again for the Six Nations Championship when both were available. Did that knock Flood's self-belief?
"No, because we were training in Portugal and I had a drink with [the England attack coach] Brian Smith and he said, 'Look, we've changed our style a little bit, in what we're about, but we believe Jonny gets the first opportunity, though we're happy with how you're going.' Brian said it was close, very close. And that was absolutely fine. To be pushing someone of the ability and heritage of Wilko, I saw it as a positive and it made me work harder. It's a team sport and if you become selfish you're just not a good person to have around. You become sullen, you become disappointed and you become actually really poisonous in the squad. You always have to be positive and as strong as you can be."
By the time of the last Six Nations match, in France, it was Flood who started, with Wilkinson on the bench. Cipriani was in the Saxons or – in his mind – nowhere. For next month's Tests in Perth and Sydney and midweek matches with the Australian Barbarians and the Maori, England will take Flood, Wilkinson, Geraghty and the recalled Charlie Hodgson.
So perhaps the best question is whether any team needs a first-choice fly-half? New Zealand's Dan Carter is held up as a paragon, an undisputed pick since his first cap in 2003, but is he the exception to the rule? Flood says there needs to be a pecking order. "I would say it is important to have a solid one to 15, who are your first choice. There should not be a situation where only if a player is injured does he not get picked. That would cause a huge amount of problems. It's important for coaches to know their core, whether it's 19, 20 or 22, and that's what we're building round. If it's only six, well, you know, there's room for choice. What I was told with England was that whoever's playing the best rugby would be in the team. That reputations don't mean anything, whether you're a 90-capper or a two- or three-capper.
"I'd like to think in England's case that Jonny and I can be there for the next three or four years and be part of a good progressing side. You can't rule out injuries and form and I think these things are hugely important. In New Zealand you have Dan Carter who's an exceptional talent and below that you probably have a gulf. If you look at France, they've got three of a similar ilk – [François] Trinh-Duc, [Lionel] Beauxis, [David] Skrela. You're a facilitator as a fly-half and with Leicester and with England a lot of work goes on to create that."
What Flood offers is good communication: verbally and in the body language which pulls a back line this way and that and dovetails with the pack. Brave at the gain line, he sometimes throws a hail-mary pass, and a couple of big moments this season have gone against him. Aaron Mauger's knock-on – when Leicester were knocked out of the Heineken Cup by the Ospreys – and Flood's charged-down drop goal in England's draw in Scotland might have been better stage-managed by a man of thespian ancestry (his grandfathers appeared on the big screen and his dad managed the Whitley Bay Playhouse). His current read is Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, a tale of Thomas Cromwell, a social climber if ever there was one. "I'm only on the third chapter and have to keep skipping back a page or two to check the plot," he says.
The storyline for Leicester is a bid for a sixth successive Premiership final against a Bath team who were beaten 43-20 at Welford Road six weeks ago but have otherwise been in irresistible form. Leicester, without Flood, who was resting a bruised hip, lost at home to Saracens last weekend. Shrewdly, perhaps, Flood diverts attention from the mid-season comebacks of Butch James and Olly Barkley to the Bath midfield and praises the scrum-half and captain, Michael Claassens.
"You look around the back line at [Nick] Abendanon and [Joe] Maddock with their feet and the power of [Matt] Banahan – and you have Shontayne [Hape] out there who'll always try the offload." Hang on, though – wasn't that the same Hape whose first-minute offload presented a try to Leicester in that April meeting? "I wouldn't imagine he'll do that again," Flood says in the north-east accent inculcated by his family's move from Surrey when he was six. "But a leopard doesn't change its spots and it's important Bath play that way because that's how they've been winning."
Leicester, he says, will "have a crack" in the backs while relying as ever on a good set piece. He chuckles about the prop Robbie Harris, who has a bandage on his head, and says: "The forwards have had a good old session with a lot of contact and somebody got a whack. No one sees it as, 'Oh God, look what's happened.' It's, 'OK, get on with it,' and he will do and it's fine. We're not paying lip service at training. We're not here to make up the numbers."
Toby Flood was speaking on behalf of specialist business insurer QBE, official insurance partner of the Guinness Premiership. See qbeeurope.com/rugby
Northampton v Saracens: Venter set to unleash the 'monster inside'
Saracens return to Northampton today for their Premiership semi-final, three weeks after taking the Saints' ground record in a regular-season fixture, chanting the multi-faceted Brendan Venter mantra. "Rugby is about creating friendships and memories," says the South African coach, who won a World Cup final as a centre in 1995. "But when the fight comes we don't back off. If you want a fight, we'll fight."
Venter and his pronouncements have been a feature of the season. After a notable winning away day at Leicester last week, Venter landed an RFU charge over allegedly pushing a female spectator and making comments to Tigers fans. Sarries players have complained privately of xenophobic slurs from Leicester fans against their South African contingent. Venter also shouted his opinions at the RFU's referee development manager, Brian Campsall, who was sitting in the Welford Road stand. "If he was 100 yards away I wouldn't have gone across," Venter says. "I saw [him] sitting there so I made him aware."
Venter released 14 players when he arrived at Vicarage Road, including the experienced All Black lock Chris Jack, and says he is deploying a "Jekyll and Hyde" principle. "We looked at Chris and did not feel he had enough fight. People who lack that can't play at the highest level. We call it the 'monster inside'. During the day you are functioning with people and your family but when the field comes you must find Mr Hyde."
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