Twenty-four hours after announcing his retirement from international rugby, Jonny Wilkinson last night found himself playing in something that looked suspiciously like an international back division – a Toulon unit featuring two three-quarters who were involved in the recent World Cup in New Zealand, the French wing Alexis Palisson and the Fijian centre Gabiriele Lovobalavu, plus a Wallaby midfielder who surely should have been there in the shape of Matt Giteau.
As Wilkinson and company were tangling with Agen, one of the form teams in France, in a rearranged Top 14 fixture – an outbreak of mumps forced the postponement of the fixture in September – the men he left behind on the far side of the water were wondering how to shape England's future in the post-Jonny era. Toby Flood of Leicester, the one-time Wilkinson understudy who performed better than the 2003 World Cup winner at the recent tournament only to be overlooked by Martin Johnson and his fellow selectors, is the obvious front-runner for the No 10 role in the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, but the red-rose caretaker coaches will need options.
There is no immediate sign of Danny Cipriani being reintegrated into the international set-up, even though the occasionally wayward Londoner is mad keen on a return now that the Johnson regime has run its course. Cipriani's preference for southern hemisphere Super 15 rugby over the slightly different form of the game seen in the Aviva Premiership is likely to remain a stumbling block, and if his Australian team, the Melbourne Rebels, start playing the multi-talented Wallaby back James O'Connor at outside-half, he will find himself short of a stage on which to perform.
Owen Farrell, the 20-year-old son of the interim England assistant coach Andy Farrell, is the young No 10 with momentum behind him, and if he turns in another top-notch display for Saracens in their tough Heineken Cup game against Ospreys in Swansea on Friday night, he will be close to nailing a place in the 32-man elite squad due to be announced early next month.
Especially as other contenders are few and far between. Charlie Hodgson is playing some terrific stuff, also on behalf of Saracens, but a recall to national colours at 31 is not obviously a forward step along the road to the 2015 World Cup. A third member of England's champion club, Alex Goode, is also a natural playmaker, but he spends virtually all of his time at full-back these days. Ryan Lamb of Northampton still has much to prove, while the gifted Gloucester pivot Freddie Burns and the Harlequins youngster Rory Clegg, last summer's first choice at second-string Saxons level, are barely out of nappies.
It is at times like this when Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker head coach, must look at the phalanx of foreign outside-halves in the Premiership – Stephen Donald at Bath, Nick Evans at Quins, Jimmy Gopperth at Newcastle and Daniel Bowden at London Irish are all New Zealanders – and wonder whether the English Qualified Player scheme is working quite as well as some people make out.
Which is probably why Lancaster intends to travel to the Mediterranean to pick Wilkinson's brains on all things connected with the No 10 position. "Jonny will continue to do great things at Toulon and I'd like to go and see him in France and learn from his vast knowledge, from his experience of 13 years at the very top of the international game," the Cumbrian said yesterday. "He ranks as one of England's greatest ever players and while he will of course be remembered for that drop goal (the World Cup-winning strike in 2003) he was, and is, more than that. He is a model sportsman, down to earth and hard-working, who has never stopped trying to be the best that he can."
Lancaster's stated determination to restore some discipline and integrity to the England group after the subterranean standards set by the World Cup party has been tested almost immediately. Danny Care, the Harlequins scrum-half who missed the New Zealand tournament through injury but is certain to be included in the Six Nations squad, was arrested on suspicion of being drunk and disorderly following his club's Heineken Cup defeat by Toulouse last Friday night and was given a fixed penalty fine of £80.
Care did not seek to downplay the incident – "It was a silly thing to do; I accept that and apologise completely," he said – and is now waiting for his club's internal disciplinary process to kick into gear. The incident occurred only a few days after the Quins No 8 Nick Easter admitted he may have been the man who uttered the now infamous line about £35,000 disappearing "down the toilet" after England's quarter-final defeat by France at the World Cup.
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