Flood faces rising tide of adversity as Fletcher and Wilkinson wave goodbye

Calcutta Cup catastrophe, internal combustion at Newcastle and change in the red rose midfield. England's centre takes Chris Hewett through a difficult week
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The Independent Online

The last few days could have been worse for Toby Flood, but only just. On Saturday, the Newcastle centre spent 68 minutes as an active participant in one of England's more shambolic efforts before aggravating a knee condition that will soon put him in hospital. On Tuesday morning, he saw his long-time midfield partner for club and country, Jonny Wilkinson, lose his place in the red rose team; a couple of hours later, he discovered that his guide and mentor, John Fletcher, had been sacked from the rugby directorship at Kingston Park. The high winds have yet to remove the roof from his house, but hey – there's still time.

If Flood feels bad about England's pea-shooter performance in the Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield and is less than ecstatic about the state of his knee – he managed to train yesterday and says he will be fit to face Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday, but is by no means certain that he will be able assume the goal-kicking responsibilities should Danny Cipriani miss a few on his first international start – his reaction to Fletcher's demise was in a different league of negativity altogether.

"This has been one of the worst weeks I've experienced, I have to admit," he said yesterday. "There's a huge amount of anger at what's going on at Newcastle and it's hard being down here" – at the England base in Bath – "when the urge is to nip back up north to see what's happening at first hand. I'm guessing to a degree, but it seems to me that the club put some thought into the timing of the announcement and said to themselves: 'Let's get this news out while some of the boys are away.' Without wishing to sound arrogant, the meeting could have turned quite nasty if those players who wield some power had been present.

"I've talked with John on the phone and it was an emotional conversation. He gave me the 'Don't worry about me, I'll crack on' line, but I'm finding the whole thing very difficult. He was my first youth development officer; he picked me as captain in my first county age-group game for Northumberland and I've been playing for him one way or another since I was 11. It's going to be odd, not having him there. I hoped we were building something at Newcastle."

On the face of it, then, Flood is not in the best of shapes to take on the Irish in a game that has the words "must" and "win" stamped all over it. The visitors are travelling without their first-choice centre pairing of Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll, and if their dire performance against Wales last weekend is any measure they are no better placed than England to trip the light fantastic in the final production of a mutually disappointing Six Nations season. Yet if Flood's performance outside Cipriani turns out to be as downbeat as the thoughts currently swirling in his mind, England will find themselves in serious danger of another damaging defeat.

There again, honesty is no bad thing – and Flood was brutally honest yesterday, particularly with regard to his own contribution. "I've been pleased with some parts of my game and disappointed with others," said the 22-year-old back, who scored tries against Wales and Italy at the start of the tournament and played magnificently against the French in Paris, before slipping off his standard last weekend. "Sometimes, I've found it difficult to put my mark on matches: I've not been anonymous, exactly, but I've allowed myself to disappear into a kind of limbo. The coaches say Jonny has been inconsistent, but they could use that word to describe all of us.

"Murrayfield was terrible, and a lot of us were wondering which heads would roll. Actually, I wasn't aware that Jonny was the only player dropped until someone pointed it out to me a couple of hours after the team announcement. It's tough for him, but he's been one of the top players in England for a long time now and we'll get behind him, just as he'll get behind us."

Flood has never played in tandem with Cipriani, and it is a lot to ask of a 22-year-old with only nine Test starts to his name to provide the kind of "eyes and ears" support that Will Greenwood – the England predecessor he resembles most closely – so famously offered Wilkinson.

"I don't think I'll play any differently now Danny is in the side, but I suppose my voice will be heard more," he said. "Danny will be looking for help, for someone to take the weight off his shoulders, just as Jonny once did. He had people like Will and Mike Catt; Danny has me. I hope he'll cope."

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