Charlie be good: the new boy steps out of Jonny's shadow

Twickenham'S Darling: Sale fly-half is now calling the shots for England
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The Independent Online

Remember the fuss when the BBC wanted to move the Nine O'clock News, and ITN felt likewise about News At Ten? In the end they both did the dirty deed, and now not even the most disgusted of Tunbridge Wells cares a fig. We may be at the same stage with the squabble over the England fly-half position. Charlie Hodgson is making all the headlines at No 10, and whither Jonny Wilkinson?

"Charlie's showed he can keep the jersey for England for a long, long time," says Hodgson's club coach, Philippe Saint-André. There may be the merest hint of favouritism on the part of Saint-André who, after resting Hodgson for the Powergen Cup this weekend, will restore him to his accustomed place as Sale Sharks' guiding light in the Heineken Cup, which resumes next Friday evening away to Castres.

But all the noises emerging from England's direction after the three autumn Tests indicate a similar level of satisfaction with the dark-haired Yorkshireman. "He is the foremost fly-half in the British Isles," said Andy Robinson, the head coach, after the concluding win over Samoa.

And last week England's backs coach, Joe Lydon, provided some insightful detail on where Hodgson went right, while Wilkinson's absence from the international arena stretched to two years.

"The Lions tour in the summer was the key to it," said Lydon. "I don't think Charlie expected to go but it did him the world of good. He came back thinking he was right up there, both in terms of the opposition and among his peers. He seems more comfortable with himself as a leader on the field rather than a follower.

"He's started to speak his mind. In the past, if he didn't agree with something he'd probably keep it quiet, trying to please everybody. Now if I say something or another player does, he'll stamp his mark and say, 'No, we're doing this'.

"We were going to change something the day before the Samoa game - another player suggested we change a particular strike move - and Charlie said bluntly, 'No, we're not changing it, we've not prepared for it, I don't want to do it that way, we'll do it this way'. And I thought, 'Good on you, Charlie, that's what you're there for'."

If that's the brain sorted out, how about the brawn? Hodgson did the splits making a tackle in the 26-16 win over Australia and went off after 60 minutes. The ice he might have put in a drink to celebrate his 25th birthday that day was applied to a sore groin. But he endured the full 80 minutes of the subsequent four-point defeat by New Zealand like some gruesome variation on a circus clown, by turns battered to the floor, picking himself up to kick a goal or call a move, then battered to the floor again.

"We asked him to go away and develop physically after the Six Nations last season and he's done it," Lydon revealed. "He's spent time in the gym, he's a lot more solid and can both give and take the physicality of the game much better.

"Charlie deserved a pat on the back for what he did against the All Blacks, taking the physical abuse and the verbal bits that came with it, because they targeted him verbally and physically to try to put him off his game."

Hodgson's 20 points against Samoa included his fifth try in 22 Tests (Wilkinson has five in 52) and steered him towards the man-of-the-match award. No one in the crowd quibbled, and he is fast becoming Twickenham's darling. Popular within the squad, too. "He does train and play with a smile on his face," said Lydon. "He's got a great sense of humour, especially with [the wing] Mark Cueto. Their one-liners with each other are superb."

Cueto was another man of Sale to be given the week off by Saint-André, whose team won their opening Heineken Cup ties in October at home to Munster and away to Newport-Gwent Dragons, and will be on top of the Premiership on Christmas Day (there are no fixtures until Boxing Day).

"As a fly-half, you need to play a lot of top-quality games, and that's what Charlie has done with Sale and England," said Saint-André. "We know he's very skilful, but he's improved a lot in the last 18 or 19 months in his defence, his game understanding and how to win different types of games. He doesn't panic. He's also a world-class kicker, so he's showed he can keep the No 10 jersey for England for a long, long time."

Lydon does not pretend that England's attack is anything like proficient enough, and Saint-André argues there is more to come from Hodgson if the formation outside him is sorted out.

"Against the All Blacks he was the only guy in the backs who passed the ball, and of course it's harder to make breaks when it's easy to read. He will dummy and break himself because he is very quick, but with England he needs more solutions with runners outside him."

When the back line was changed for Samoa, Hodgson commented about how that added to the difficulties. Lydon says even that is fine by him and Robinson.

"The statement itself shows that he is able to critique his own game and the rest of the team with authority. Andy would rather have the players say what they feel rather than shy away from it.

"Charlie's performances in this series were as good as anybody's in the attack. I'm pleased with that, and he should be as well."