Charlie to take his chances in absence of Jonny and Danny

Fly-half back in reckoning after being overtaken and overlooked
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The Independent Online

Champagne Charlie is not his name. He was, briefly, the toast of England, but then he choked on a canapé and dropped a Bollinger. Charlie Hodgson's curse was that his career coincided with that of Jonny Wilkinson.

Initially they played alongside each other for the Red Rose cause and all was well. On the surface it appeared that Hodgson was fortunate. When Wilkinson, the World Cup hero of 2003, began his orthopaedic odyssey, it provided Hodgson with big- game time but Twickenham, who had a love affair with Wilkinson, never warmed to him. On occasions they booed him.

Now Hodgson will be back in the star role against New Zealand in Auckland on Saturday. "Charlie has had another very consistent season and has been one of the best fly-halves in the English domestic game for a number of years," said Rob Andrew, the elite rugby director at the RFU. "It is a big opportunity for him, and I'm looking forward to seeing him play." Talk about pressure.

England have become accustomed to seeing their stand-offs taken off on a stretcher. Hodgson's knee succumbed to a second cruciate-ligament injury against South Africa in November 2006 and he missed last year's World Cup. He had another worry. While convalescing he saw the emergence of the electric Danny Cipriani, until the Wasps youngster shattered an ankle.

What goes around, it seems, comes around. Hodgson was in the training squad for the Six Nations but did not make the cut, except for a brief appearance, as a substitute, against Scotland. "It crosses your mind that you might never get back in," he said. "I was released in midweek and sent back to Sale, and that's when the harsh reality hits home. But I never gave up hope. It just makes you strive harder.

"It's always going to be tough to knock other players out of the reckoning but I've always had belief in myself. I thought there might be a chance, with Jonny having an operation and then seeing what happened to Danny. I feel for him because I know what he's going through."

Last weekend Hodgson made his first England start in 18 months against the Barbarians but had his face disfigured after running into Jerry "The Hitman" Collins. The good news is that Collins is taking a break and will play no part in the two-Test series.

The All Blacks have lost 11 players from last year's World Cup squad. Yesterday's Test against Ireland was their first since the excruciating quarter-final defeat to France. The country still hasn't got over it, and must now wait for the World Cup to come to them in 2011.

"You can't afford to lose Tests in the World Cup without creating a huge reaction in this country," said Graham Henry, the All Blacks coach. "That's the way it is. Expectation is huge, and you wouldn't want to change that."

Andrew, in the absence of England's new manager, Martin Johnson, commiserated. "You have one dodgy 20-minute spell in a four-year period and the whole thing gets blown up. That is not what New Zealand have been consistently about. Over the last four years they've played some of the most sensational rugby that anybody has ever seen. In terms of their depth they are still very strong, and there will be an unearthing of some new stars."

This is also what Andrew, who names his team on Tuesday, is seeking. "Some of our younger players will get a taste of what the next World Cup will be like. They can feel the atmosphere of the game in New Zealand. We've talked a lot about the sort of players we wanted to bring here, what we wanted to get out of the tour, what we wanted to learn. We've got another generation of players coming through."

As Henry revealed his latest All Blacks creation, England were not dismayed to learn that the Tests will revert to northern hemisphere laws and not the experimental variations that were used in the Super 14.

Henry was coming to terms with the ELVs. "The game had a lot more shape than it had initially," he said. "We were worried that teams were going backwards and forwards without any structure, but then we saw them looking after the ball and building pressure through continuity."

Andrew gave the impression that it was no big deal, yet this is the man who declared that the new laws would destroy the game. "I'm not sure New Zealand will be massively disadvantaged," he said. "I'm sure they will adapt pretty quickly. They're going back to something they know."

So, in a sense, is Hodgson, one of the few successes on the 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand.