It is a long time since the British and Irish Lions picked a squad without an England fly-half in it, and Toby Flood is determined to show the tourists what they are snubbing by leading Leicester to a League and European double. Not that the Tigers No 10 gives himself a cat in hell's chance of making the trip to South Africa even if Wales's Stephen Jones or Ireland's Ronan O'Gara gets injured. "I think that door's pretty much closed," said Flood, who has started England's last three matches and played beautifully in the most recent of them against Scotland.
Flood is not the only one at his club to be overlooked. Leicester, top of the League in England and with semi-finals in the Heineken Cup today against Cardiff Blues and Bath in the Premiership next Saturday, have just one Lion: the scrum-half, Harry Ellis, who will be on the bench today.
Leicester's opponents this afternoon have six and it is understood their fly-half Nicky Robinson is on standby, while yesterday's semi-finalists, Munster and Leinster, have 11. Leicester's head coach, Richard Cockerill, took it as a kick in the gumshield. "Cardiff have got a lot of distractions, the Lions and everything, and everybody telling them how good they are. Well, we will see."
Flood, who is closer to the firing line than "Cockers", threw more of a sidestep to the question, but not much more. "The way Wales and Ireland have played in the last two years, it was likely it [the Lions] would be full of their players. Obviously guys at Leicester are disappointed, [flanker] Tom Croft and a couple of others." And young Tobias himself? "You have to take it on the chin and realise it does not make you a bad player. England has been good fun lately and I want to go on tour with them to Argentina and get stuck into it."
It was five tours ago in 1989 when the Lions last set off without an England No 10 though, as it turned out, Rob Andrew was called out to Australia to replace an injured Irishman, Paul Dean, and started the series-winning second and third Tests. The English names mentioned most often as alternatives to Jones and O'Gara this year were Jonny Wilkinson and Danny Cipriani, despite them hobbling around in various states of incapacity. Flood – though not immune to injury himself – has been more active and effective but not made the same headline news. Maybe he lacks Cipriani's range of passing or Wilkinson's sledgehammer tackling, or simply the right girlfriend. What Flood has done is something Wilkinson had the chance to do but decided against – he left Newcastle for Leicester.
Asked if the move last summer had brought him out of Wilkinson's shadow, the voluble Flood allowed a rare eclipse across his sunny features. "I dunno, I dunno how big the shadow is, he's only played a couple of games this year. You know, it's difficult, he [Wilkinson] is a guy who has played a huge amount for club and country before, and done fantastically well. I don't think I left Newcastle to leave his or anybody's shadow. The timing was pretty spot on, I was 23 years old and in the evolution of my skills. I'd done quite well and was ready to push forward. I came to a club I thought would be in this situation at the end of the season. You have Martin Corry, Lewis Moody and Julian White and all these stalwarts of England rugby around you. They test you and your position and every time I drive through the gate here, it's great."
Leicester being Leicester, Flood said, they will only be happy with winning both the Premiership and Heineken Cup. He would like to make it a treble, with his favourite football club Newcastle United avoiding relegation but, with a smile, he rated that prospect on a par with his own for the Lions. It is the smile Flood plans to flash at Julien Dupuy and Sam Vesty either side of him today.
"For me enjoyment is the most important thing," said Flood. "Problems arise within teams when they are too stressed and get sent over the edge." The Blues have near-as-dammit home advantage at the Millennium Stadium though Leicester have won on the ground four times in five visits. Cardiff destroyed Gloucester in the Anglo-Welsh cup final a fortnight ago but Cockerill, whose side have lost once in 10 matches, said: "We're slightly different to Gloucester."