Hodgson relishing big chance to escape the shadow of Wilkinson

James Corrigan talks to the England fly-half desperate to kick comparisons into touch in the autumn Tests
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The Independent Online

Whatever he does, wherever he goes, the "J" word follows Charlie Hodgson around as faithfully as Brutus did Caesar. It's always Jonny this, Jonny that, Jonny the other ... mention it and Hodgson's eyes are just bound to roll back and look to the heavens. Or they would do if he didn't expect to see the image of Wilkinson on a celestial cloud up there.

Whatever he does, wherever he goes, the "J" word follows Charlie Hodgson around as faithfully as Brutus did Caesar. It's always Jonny this, Jonny that, Jonny the other ... mention it and Hodgson's eyes are just bound to roll back and look to the heavens. Or they would do if he didn't expect to see the image of Wilkinson on a celestial cloud up there.

Even in this of all weeks, the young Sale Shark has fielded more questions on "you-know-who" than "who-are-you".

"What's it like living in his shadow?" "Doesn't it hurt knowing you're just standing in for Him?" "How many years will you have left when He retires?" Poor old Charlie, he's needed all the patience of a saint to put up with it (and no, we're not talking about St Jonny of Drop Goal).

Patience is just one of many virtues that the 24-year-old possesses in a weaponry that promises to be tested to its last round of ammunition at Twickenham on Saturday when the Springbok machine rolls into town. For it is here that Hodgson will at last be given the centre of a stage worthy of a command performance, and it is here that he will try to burst into a national consciousness that seemingly only has room for one No 10. And he's not Jonny Wilkinson. He's Charlie Hodgson. Remember it.

"These are the days you dream about when you're a kid," Hodgson said earlier this week. "Playing at a full house at Twickenham against one of the best teams in the world..." his imagination drifting off into the land of three-man overlaps and last-gasp touchline conversions before some dolt brought him crashing back to the here-and-now with a well-timed question about He who shan't be forgotten.

"Look," said Hodgson with what could be considered in a nastier individual to be a hint of annoyance, "Jonny's not here this week, he's injured. So I'm playing and my focus is purely on performing well this weekend. Obviously there's been a lot of people making comparisons about the way I play and the way Wilkinson plays, the way I kick and the way Wilkinson kicks and that's always - and I mean always - going to happen. I guess it comes with the territory. But the only pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself, which is ultimately to play well in an England shirt and to be presenting the coach with a selection problem for the future."

Ah, that "selection problem" that Andy Robinson attempted to swat away with the straightest of bats this week by saying: "Charlie's good form has provided me with the sort of headache I like." A headache he likes? Take that with a large pinch of aspirin. Indeed, the real cranium burster would have been if Wilkinson had not suffered an arm injury before these autumn internationals, because there were some awfully knowledgeable voices declaring that the anointed one should not necessarily be the chosen one, what with Hodgson sweeping all aside for Sale while Robinson's newly appointed captain was labouring over the mop and bucket for Newcastle.

It was no surprise to hear the Sale director of rugby, Philippe Saint-André, pressing the claims of his man, but when a judge of the stature of Stuart Barnes weighs in with a verdict that asks "how can a man who is currently nowhere near being the best player in the country in his position be inked in as captain?" you know this is a serious debate.

Jonathan Davies, another oval-ball heavyweight who himself knows a thing or two about the subtle arts of fly-halfery, added his considerable backing to Hodgson's cause yesterday. "I must say that if Wilkinson was fit, and Robinson was selecting purely on form, then he would have to go with Hodgson, especially after he was one of the few bright things to come out of England's summer tour down under," he said. "Don't forget that Wilkinson has been coming back from a career-threatening injury and should at least be allowed time to rediscover his game. But if, in the meantime, Hodgson does sparkle at 10 then perhaps Robinson may have to use Wilkinson at inside centre. Hodgson is the more creative player but it would be terribly difficult for Robinson not to employ Wilkinson somewhere."

Although he was reluctant to admit it, this particular scenario was burning bright in Hodgson's mind as he let his thoughts escape Saturday's showdown for a second to survey his life plan. "I am an out-and-out fly-half and that's where I want to play, so these autumn internationals add up to the biggest chance of my career. Of course I'd love to keep the No 10 spot, so when Jonny comes back he would have to play alongside me. But I don't know if he'd be too happy at 12 and out of position."

Before this eventuality even enters the outskirts of reality there is the little matter of the Tri-Nations champions and - personal disasters aside - Australia on back-to-back weekends during which Hodgson has plenty to ram down the sceptics' disbelieving throats. The biggest question mark, one that has served as a giant backdrop to his career thus far, is Hodgson's defensive game, or more to the point the lack of one. "One of the main aspects Philippe has made me focus on at Sale - apart from being more clinical and knowing when to take the points - has been my tackling. I've worked with the coach and Kingsley Jones [Saint-André's assistant] on my positioning and that's helped me a hell of a lot. Saying that, I saw Joe van Niekerk [the South African No 8] give Stephen Jones a fearful clattering a few times against Wales so I know this will be a huge challenge. It doesn't take a genius to work out that the Springboks represent a highly physical encounter."

If Hodgson was steeling himself for this perceived weakness to be thrust under scrutiny then he wasn't quite as ready for his trusty right boot to be rudely shoved under the spotlight. As he showed when racking up 44 points in his first international against Romania in 2001, his kicking game has always rivalled Wilkinson's for its emphasis on inevitability so it came as something of a shock when the metronome took on all the attributes of a garden gnome against the hapless Canadians at Twickenham last weekend.

Out of seven conversion attempts, he missed a noose-tightening five before deciding to throw the tee to Henry Paul to take over. This is a luxury that a landslide victory allows you, but in a contest that could be close enough to merit a recount, England will ill-afford any such profligacy. "It's one of those things that happened to me and I've been trying to put it right," said Hodgson who otherwise was a class act against the north Americans. "I've not changed the way I've practised this week or anything. This was just one game and I don't want to delve too deep to find out what happened. I just want to forget it and stick with the routine I've always stuck with."

But if, horrors of horrors, it does misfire again then, justly or unjustly, the calls for Wilkinson's swift return are likely to reverberate around Twickenham. It wouldn't be the first time either. "Against the All Blacks at Dunedin in the summer I was lining up one shot at goal when I heard an English voice from the terraces chanting, 'We want Jonny, we want Jonny'. That's when you know you're up against it," he said.

And Gordon Brown thinks he's got a battle on his hands to get in at No 10. He should try being Charlie Hodgson.

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