It was bound to happen, but the inevitability did not make the decision any easier to reach. Brian Ashton, the England head coach, yesterday dropped Jonny Wilkinson – Saint Jonny, the most prodigious accumulator of points in the history of rugby union and a man who could once do no wrong even when he could do nothing right – from the starting line-up for this weekend's heavily loaded Six Nations meeting with Ireland at Twickenham. It was, Ashton admitted, the most difficult of calls.
Wilkinson's replacement will be none other than Danny Cipriani, now known to all and sundry as the Marquis of Mayfair. The 20-year-old Wasps player would have made his first full appearance for his country at Murrayfield last weekend, but for his now notorious nocturnal visit to a central London nightspot to deliver some match tickets to friends. Might he use Her Majesty's postal system to distribute his precious wares on this occasion? "Good idea," he said. "I like that."
Not since the 1999 World Cup has Wilkinson been demoted. On that occasion, Clive Woodward – then a mere man of the people, rather than a knight of the realm – made a late switch, omitting the Newcastle player from his side to face South Africa in a quarter-final in Paris and including the considerably senior Paul Grayson instead.
Ironically, it was a move that baffled Ashton, the England attack coach during the tournament, who had gone to bed on the eve of the match under the distinct impression that Wilkinson would start.
And now it is Ashton who finds himself doing the dropping. Wisely, he did not go the whole hog by ditching Wilkinson from the squad. The most celebrated player in world rugby will be among the replacements on Saturday and, as the coach remarked, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he will "come on for 70 minutes, play a blinder and win us the game". All the same, it is a courageous move.
Wilkinson was pretty poor in Edinburgh, even by the diminishing standards of a player in decline, but his status among the Twickenham faithful is such that many selectors would have played the "one last chance" card and saved themselves the torture of an afternoon in hostage-to-fortune territory. "His form has been inconsistent," Ashton said of the fallen idol. "I told him to his face that he wouldn't be starting this game and his response was professional in the extreme. We need to sit down and have a long discussion. This wasn't an easy thing to do, clearly; we're talking about someone who has just broken the world points-scoring record. But it would be completely wrong of me to single out Jonny as a special case, because all players are equal. It's not an Animal Farm situation, where some are more equal than others."
As per usual, Wilkinson was late back from training yesterday. "I still care desperately about what I do," he said when he eventually finished his kicking practice and returned to the team hotel in Bath. "Am I disappointed? Of course, but that's only to be expected. Am I irked? No. It took me a millisecond to get over it. I have the best of intentions of helping Danny move his career forward, and I have every intention of showing the best of myself when I get the chance to play. It's common knowledge that I've had a change of perspective about things, but the old fire still burns and it will continue doing so until someone tells me they don't want my fire any more."
It was precisely the response expected by those who have watched Wilkinson gather his 1,000-plus points over the course of an injury-ravaged decade: honest and generous in equal measure. The temptation was to feel desperately sorry for him. But Ashton, aware that the atmosphere surrounding his stewardship of the England side has turned poisonous in the days since the Calcutta Cup defeat, could not afford so much as a smidgen of sentimentality. Needing something more than Wilkinson can offer in the key marshalling position, this enthusiastic fast-tracker of young talent drew the deepest of breaths before placing his own future squarely in the hands of the youngest red rose No 10 since Olly Barkley made his Test debut on the low-key tour of North America in 2001.
He was even willing to crack a joke about it. Asked whether he felt Cipriani was ready for such a responsibility, the coach replied, with heavy sarcasm: "It's the first thing you associate with him, responsibility." Ashton went on to insist, in more serious tones, that his relationship with the newcomer post-Mayfair was precisely the same as it had been beforehand.
"I always planned to give him a start in this Six Nations," he said. "It would have been at full-back last Saturday, but for other circumstances, and now it's at outside-half this weekend.
"I first saw him as a 15-year-old playing in a schools cup final, where he was the stand-out individual in his peer group. A year later, he was the standout performer amongst people older than him. He's always had some authority about him, and if I didn't think he would bring that authority to the game at this level, I wouldn't have picked him."
Cipriani supported Ashton's take on events. "Brian did what he said he would do and dropped me for one game," he remarked. "I was terribly disappointed: playing for England was, and is, my dream. I was naïve last week – no more, no less – and I've learnt my lesson. Thankfully, I've learnt it now, while I'm 20, and for the rest of my career, I'll be more aware. But I can't be thinking about all that, because I have a game to play and some moves to call. The biggest disappointment was sitting at home with my mate, watching the game on TV and seeing our chance of winning the championship disappear."
Had Ashton been of a mind to rip up the side as a result of the miserable display in Scotland, half a dozen players might have gone the way of Wilkinson. As it is, the other 14 Murrayfield starters have a reprieve, although the cack-handed Lesley Vainikolo would almost certainly have bitten the dust but for a minor ankle injury suffered by his Gloucester colleague James Simpson-Daniel. "James was under consideration, but it's most unlikely he'd have been able to train before Friday," the coach explained.
"Does this make Jonny the scapegoat? I don't see it like that at all, but I can't control how it's seen by people outside the squad. It's easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to a defeat like the one at Murrayfield, but this group of players has worked extremely hard over the last six weeks or so and they deserve a chance to bounce back. Do I feel under pressure personally? There's always pressure in this job, and we have to put in a performance against Ireland."
There was no arguing with that last comment. Even Cipriani described it as a "do or die match", and his reputation is not on the line. Not his rugby reputation, at any rate.
Saturday's Twickenham teams
15 I Balshaw (Gloucester)
14 P Sackey (Wasps)
13 J Noon (Newcastle)
12 T Flood (Newcastle)
11 L Vainikolo (Gloucester)
10 D Cipriani (Wasps)
9 R Wigglesworth (Sale)
1 A Sheridan (Sale)
2 L Mears (Bath)
3 P Vickery (Wasps, capt)
4 S Shaw (Wasps)
5 S Borthwick (Bath)
6 T Croft (Leicester)
7 M Lipman (Bath)
8 N Easter (Harlequins)
Replacements: 16 G Chuter (Leicester), 17 M Stevens (Bath), 18 B Kay (Leicester), 19 J Haskell (Wasps), 20 P Hodgson (London Irish), 21 J Wilkinson (Newcastle), 22 M Tait (Newcastle).
15 G Murphy (Leicester)
14 T Bowe (Ulster)
13 A Trimble (Ulster)
12 S Horgan (Leinster)
11 R Kearney (Leinster)
10 R O'Gara (Munster, capt)
9 E Reddan (Wasps)
1 M Horan (Munster)
2 R Best (Ulster)
3 J Hayes (Munster)
4 D O'Callaghan (Munster)
5 P O'Connell (Munster)
6 D Leamy (Munster)
7 D Wallace (Munster)
8 J Heaslip (Leinster)
Replacements: 16 B Jackman (Leinster), 17 T Buckley (Munster), 18 M O'Driscoll (Munster), 19 S Easterby (Scarlets), 20 P Stringer (Munster), 21 P Wallace (Ulster), 22 L Fitzgerald (Leinster).
Kick-off: Saturday, 3pm (BBC 1)
Referee: S Dickinson (Aus)Reuse content