Two of the words that define Toby Flood's rugby career, in the popular imagination at least, are "Jonny" and "Wilkinson". You can see the public's point.
Suitably inspired by Wilkinson's epic deeds in the early years of the last decade, Flood went on to understudy England's most celebrated player at Newcastle, train and play alongside him for club and country, fight him tooth and nail for the international No 10 shirt, and then, after a long and frustrating struggle, succeed him at the heart of the red-rose team. Hell, they were even born in the same small town on the Surrey-Hampshire border.
But as he revealed, Flood has never faced his great friend, ally and occasional tormentor under match conditions. Not once. Which makes this weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-final between Toulon and Leicester before a sell-out crowd on shores of the Mediterranean unusually interesting. Wilkinson, who last week signed up for another tour of duty with the free-spending French side, is expected to start the tie in his usual position of outside-half. Flood? He will lead the Midlanders from the same position. It promises to be the individual duel of the round – and, quite possibly, the season.
"It'll be fun," remarked Flood, who passed the 50-cap mark for England before Christmas and has been kicking like a dream all year. "We're good friends – we've always got along really well – and there's that history between us. We're all expecting a seriously tough game against what we acknowledge to be a stunning side, and the threat Toulon pose has made us look in at ourselves and understand that we'll have to be at our pinnacle to win. But I think there will be some wry smiles between Jonny and me during the course of the contest. I hope so, anyway."
Flood could easily have sidestepped the Wilkinson questions, or even ruled the W-word off limits. Rugby is, after all, a team sport, not a soap opera. But he was happy to engage with the subject, crediting the World Cup-winning midfielder with setting the standards that allowed a generation of young Newcastle backs to make the best of themselves.
"When I was just starting out, the thing that really struck me about Jonny was his desire," the Leicester man said. "It seemed oxymoronic at the time: the world's best player, training harder than everyone else. But to see someone blessed with that ability showing such endeavour, such a determination to leave no stone unturned in the quest to be better… basically, it showed us what we could be like if we followed his example. And that desire is still there. He looks just as hungry as he always was.
"He's just as sharp too. Toulon have other people who can run a game – people like Matt Giteau (the exceptional Wallaby playmaker). But it's Jonny who will orchestrate things. If their momentum stalls and he's in drop goal range, he'll step back two or three paces and bang it between the posts."
Leicester accept they will start this Sunday's game as underdogs, but they are largely unaffected by injury – of the really serious front-line players, only the international lock Louis Deacon is out of circulation – and they will travel in full warpaint.
"The question is whether we can withstand the physicality of the Toulon side and deal with the brilliance of their individuals," said Richard Cockerill, the Midlanders' rugby director. "Most people will look at their squad and say it's better than ours, and that doesn't happen to us often. We know all about their spending power – if they want a player, they buy him – and if you look at their cover in the back row alone, you think: 'Christ, what's the point?' So we'll concentrate on looking at the detail of what they do rather than look at their team sheet and worry about their big names. They have a lot of them, but only 15 can be put on the field."
Then, the former hooker put on his mischievous face. "We're not like Toulon," he commented. "How they go about running their club isn't right and it isn't wrong. It's just different. Players go to them because they pay the most money and it's a nice place. Here at Leicester, you don't get the most money… and it isn't a nice place."
Laughter in the darkness, or an indication that the Tigers are ready to get down and dirty? Experienced gamblers will place their money on the second of those options.
Head to head
Jonny Wilkinson/Toby Flood
33 Age 27
Frimley Birthplace Frimley
5ft10in Height 6ft 2in
13st 8 Weight 14st 3
1997 Pro debut 2005
Newc, Toulon Clubs Newc, Leics
1 Prem title Honours 2 Prem titles
91 England caps 57
1,179 England points 299
- More about:
- Heineken Cup
- Newcastle Upon Tyne
- Sea And Ocean
- South East England
- Styles And Clothes