Flood auditioning to be the centre of attention for club and country
Newcastle and England player Toby Flood comes from thespian stock but is finding appreciative audiences for his club double act with Jonny Wilkinson. Simon Turnbull meets the rising star tipped for a leading Six Nations role
Saturday 19 January 2008
Toby, or not Toby? That is the question. Actually, if Brian Ashton has been keeping an eagle eye on Newcastle Falcons of late it's a quandary that he will probably already have resolved. As he formulates his selection plans for the Six Nations Championship opener against Wales at Twickenham a fortnight today, England's head coach must surely have a role in mind for the princely Toby Flood – the young man from a thespian family (one of his grandfathers starred in Doctor Who, the other in The Guns of Navarone), who has now become not so much an understudy as a vital supporting act to Jonathan Peter Wilkinson.
Playing inside centre to Wilkinson's stand-off in the European Challenge Cup at Brive eight days ago, Flood delivered his lines to perfection and read those of his midfield partner with uncanny telepathy. Before Wilkinson had even put boot to ball with a chip into traffic in the home 22, Flood was off in pursuit. His sat-nav did not fail him. Stooping to pick the ball off under pressure, he held off the close attentions of a defender and slid over the line for the decisive score of the night – all in one swooping move.
It was a similar story when Newcastle won at Saracens three weeks ago. Flood was at the top of his game as the Falcons, then without a victory on their Guinness Premiership travels for 13 months, spread their wings with an attacking vengeance.
The 22-year-old also happens to be at the top of most pundits' list for the No 12 shirt in Ashton's team, one newspaper even venturing to suggest that the veteran of just four starts in 12 international appearances should now be categorised among the "undroppables".
Mention of which raised not just the one eyebrow but two, as the still-fledgling Falcon settled into a chair in one of the function rooms at Kingston Park. "It's kind of people to be writing things like that, I suppose," Flood pondered, "but they don't pick the team. We'll have to wait and see what happens, because there's a lot of competition in my area, in the 10 and 12 positions.
"It's like the old back row for England in some respects. There's a lot of talent around, and a lot of young talent. There's Shane Geraghty, Ryan Lamb, Danny Cipriani – it can only be good for the game. To have guys in your area of the field that are really strong can only push you to perform every time.
"There's talk of Cipriani maybe starting at 10, which to someone like Jonny could be pressure, though I don't think he'll feel it that way. The biggest pressure is what you put on yourself, what you expect of yourself. Jonny will just want to be the best he can be and I think I'll take a leaf out of that book. I'll try to be the best I can and if that's not good enough then I'll go away and work as hard as I possibly can to get back into the England team."
Which is precisely what Flood did last summer when he failed to make the cut for Ashton's World Cup party after being a member of the red rose training squad. He swiftly licked his wounds, went back to Newcastle and showed what he could do in the Guinness Premiership. When his fellow Falcon Jamie Noon suffered knee ligament damage in the pool match against South Africa, he got his chance out in France as an emergency reinforcement, coming off the bench in the quarter-final, semi-final and final.
On each occasion Flood replaced the tiring Mike Catt at inside centre. Now that the veteran midfielder has become the retiring kind at international level, the No 12 shirt would appear to be tailor-made for Jonny Whatshisname's 6ft 4in wirily built Newcastle sidekick.
"I think, with my body frame and the way that I am, I'll probably end up as a 12," Flood said, pondering his personal position. "I've played most of my rugby at 10 but, with Jonny back, to have the ability to play 12 is hugely beneficial to myself and the club.
"The way the club want to play is with two playmakers in the team. And I've always looked at Mike Catt, in the way he can flit between 10 and 12. I hope I can be half as good as he has been in those positions. That's the way I'm looking at it, but I do think that as I start to get older I'll probably drift more towards 12."
It would have been only natural had Flood drifted towards playing roles on a different stage altogether. His father, Tim, is the general manager of Whitley Bay Playhouse, and his paternal grandfather was a star of stage and screen. Gerald Flood played Flashman in the BBC television adaptation of Tom Brown's Schooldays and the android Kamelion in Doctor Who. He also appeared on the small screen in The Champions, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and The Ratcatchers.
Toby's maternal grandfather, Albert Lieven, was a leading actor in Germany before he fled to England in 1937 to escape the ravages of Nazism. Ironically, he made a name for himself in the English-speaking film world playing villainous Germans. He appeared alongside Deborah Kerr in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and alongside Gregory Peck in The Guns of Navarone.
"Sadly, they're both dead now, but it's nice to be able to watch them on DVD," Toby said. "My mum and dad are proud of their parents and I am too. I think I'm more proud of my mum's dad for what he did in helping his Jewish friends get out of Germany. He was crashing cars and torching them, claiming he'd had passports burnt in the wreckage, to get new documents to get people out of the country.
"Apparently the Gestapo came round and said, 'We know what's going on,' and in the next couple of days he upped sticks and left for England. You can't really comprehend what was going on at that time in Germany, but the fact that the guy saw through the whole tragedy of what was happening and helped people leave the country is something I'm very proud of.
"My mum and dad both gave acting a bash and my sister Charlotte, who's five years older than me, did a bit at school; she played Sandy in Grease and all that type of stuff. I think the gene had worn out by the time it got to me. I've only acted the once. It was a nativity play at school. I was wearing beige tights and a papier-mâché mask. I was a pig. It was awful. The fact that my sister was crying with laughter put me off acting for life."
It says a good deal about the unflappable, affable Flood that he was not put off international rugby for life when he fluffed his opening lines on his debut, as a replacement for Charlie Hodgson against Argentina at Twickenham 14 months ago – throwing away an interception pass to Federico Todeschini, and with it the match.
It says much about the way they breed them at Newcastle Falcons too. The Mathew Tait who fizzed Billy Whizz-style in the World Cup final (and who cut a razor-sharp line to score from a superbly timed Flood pass in that Premiership win against Saracens), has been unrecognisable from the callow youth shunted halfway back up the M4 by Gavin Henson on his England baptism in Cardiff.
There has been something of a ruffling of Falcons' feathers of late – what with the sudden departure last month of Steve Black, their conditioning coach cum Mr Motivator – but Flood remains happily under the wing of John Fletcher. The man who succeeded Rob Andrew as the club's director of rugby at the start of last season, an England A centre in his Northampton playing days, nurtured Flood through the Northumberland county age-group sides and through Newcastle's Academy set-up.
"Fletch has been a huge influence on my playing career," Flood reflected. "He's the type of guy who hasn't a bad word to say about anybody and the type of guy who's hugely positive.
"He's not a Rob Andrew. He hasn't had 70 caps for England. But he did play for England A. Actually, his claim to fame is that he's appeared on Friends. If you watch one of the episodes they've got rugby on television in the background, and there's Fletch playing for England A against the USA on tour."
Naturally, there has been another huge influence on Flood in his time as a Falcon: the man he watched on television landing the drop goal that won the 2003 World Cup final, before heading off to play for Morpeth as a teenager, and alongside whom he played in the 2007 World Cup final. "Jonny has helped me massively," he said. "I think he's the type of guy that gets the best out of the people around him – by the way he acts, the way that he trains and the way that he conducts himself."
Tomorrow at Kingston Park Flood will be stepping into the master's shoes to conduct operations in the European Challenge Cup game against the Spaniards Cetransa El Salvador. He moves to outside-half, with Wilkinson getting an afternoon off.
For the Falcons, top of Pool Three and likely to qualify for a home quarter-final, the second-tier European competition represents an opportunity to secure what their neighbours down the road at St James' Park so desperately crave: a piece of silverware.
Flood, who was six when his family moved from Surrey to Northumberland, grew up as a fan of Newcastle United. "I was lucky enough to be a ballboy on a couple of occasions," he recalled. Speaking of which, in a roundabout way, brought us on to the subject of the painful episode Flood has overcome since his last international appearance. Playing for the Falcons against Newport-Gwent Dragons in the EDF Energy Cup in November, he suffered what was reported as "a groin injury". The reality was rather more excruciating (male readers of a delicate disposition are advised to look away now).
"I can remember taking a couple of knocks down there and feeling a bit sore, but that happens so often in a game I thought nothing of it," Flood reflected. "I went home after the match unaware there was anything wrong but I couldn't get to sleep. By 4am that area had swollen massively and I drove myself to hospital. What had happened was the sheath inside the scrotum had split and then started to bleed and bleed. I ended up losing about 50 per cent of the right testicle. It was just dead tissue they had to get rid of.
"So, yeah ... it was an interesting experience. I got a bit of stick for a while, but you have to laugh it off... No, you're forced to laugh it off, by the people around you. Otherwise, if you take it too seriously, you're in trouble.
"But everything's fine now. It doesn't hurt me when I play. All credit to the surgeon. He did a great job."
Role models: the cult android and the silver-screen Nazi
From Nazis to Doctor Who, the Flood family's thespian leanings were nothing if not eclectic. Toby's paternal grandfather Gerald was one of those actors you might have struggled to name, but who would have been instantly familiar, from supporting roles in Sixties series like The Champions and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). One of his most notable roles was in Doctor Who as the android Kamelion in "The King's Demons" and "Planet of Fire" as well as a brief appearance in the scene in which Peter Davison regenerates into Colin Baker. He also played Sir Richard Flashman in the 1971 BBC serial Tom Brown's Schooldays. He died in 1989 at the age of 61.
Toby's maternal grandfather Albert Lieven, was born in Germany and began his acting career there in 1932, appearing in 17 films until fleeing the Nazis in 1937.
It was fitting that he spent the war years playing the Hun in British films – in 1940 alone he appeared in seven – and in 1943 he did a turn in the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger masterpiece, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. He may be best remembered for his part as the kommandant in The Guns of Navarone. He died in 1971, aged 65.
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