Flutey ready to be centre of attention
Kiwi should return for Six Nations after injury but compatriot stands in his way
Sunday 16 January 2011
The burning question for Martin Johnson of what to do about Toby and Jonny does not bother Riki Flutey. The New Zealander convert to England's cause says he is happy to be the inside-centre alongside either one of Messrs Flood and Wilkinson at fly-half; more than keen to do so, in fact, after 10 months of international inactivity brought on by injury and influenza.
The baleful injury rate of modern Test players makes it almost certain the XV sketched out in the England manager Johnson's mind is hardly ever the one that makes it on to the field. This is what explains the addition of Charlie Hodgson to the squad for the Six Nations' Championship announced last Wednesday.
Whereas this time last year only Flood and Wilkinson were included as out-and-out outside-halves, England say they want three "generals" acquainted with every move and nuance of the play-book. With the World Cup coming up in September, they are, apparently, mindful of the All Blacks' experience last time out at France 2007. Dan Carter started the quarter-final with a calf injury; his replacement Nick Evans was undercooked, then also injured, and the final 20 minutes of the dream-shattering defeat to France in Cardiff was crying out for calm decisions.
All the above being true in theory, the likely practice is that one fly-half will start at least the majority – if not all – of England's remaining eight matches before the World Cup. It raises the intriguing and psychologically fascinating possibility that England's golden boy of 2003 might spend 2011 awaiting his chance on the bench. Not a bad back-up to have, but how would Wilkinson feel about it? He played the understudy three times to Flood last year – in France and Australia – but the choice did not occur when he pulled out of the autumn series with a shoulder problem that required four weeks' rest. Last Wednesday, in reply to questions over the 31-year-old Wilkinson extending his contract in France, Johnson said: "I am just happy that he's fit and I'm looking forward to him coming in."
England's intent to play wide when it suits places emphasis on a smooth-running midfield. The coaches' statistics from the autumn Tests show England making more line breaks than their Tri-Nations opponents, though two matches were 10-point defeats and only six tries were scored in four matches. The defensive organisation of Mike Tindall at outside-centre is much valued, even if his passing in tight spots sometimes fails him. The preference for size in that position was emphasised by the 6ft 7in Matt Banahan playing against Samoa when Tindall was rested.
Flutey's flu, which confined him to bed for a fortnight and saw him lose "a few kgs", followed on from an early-season calf injury that allowed his fellow Kiwi, the Bath centre Shontayne Hape, to retain the No 12 jersey he had worn on England's summer tour. Flutey scores over Hape in his kicking ability (Flutey has been a some-time scrum-half, fly-half and full-back; Hape hardly kicks at all). Both are hefty in the upper body and reliable in retaining possession in the tackle. Indisputably Flutey gives more options as a playmaker.
"We're brothers, yeah, we're brothers," said Flutey of his compatriot. "No, I never thought two Kiwis would be going for an England place – no one did. I thought Shontayne played really well in the autumn internationals and that's good for me from a mental point of view. It makes me want to get out there and compete. If I was selected against Wales I would be 100 per cent confident that I can play to the team's pattern and show everyone how I can play."
There has been many a fringe candidate at No 12 – Shane Geraghty, Jordan Turner-Hall, Dom Waldouck, Anthony Allen, Brad Barritt, Flood and Wilkinson among them – but only Flutey and Hape have had Johnson's prolonged vote. Flutey was picked for the 2010 opener against Wales but pulled out with a thigh problem. He started the other Six Nations matches: three with Wilkinson and one – most effectively in terms of launching the outside backs – with Flood in Paris. The previous season ended with Flutey picked for the Lions' tour to South Africa. In England's 34-10 thrashing of France at Twickenham in March 2009 he scored two tries and combined with Flood to bring Delon Armitage into play from full-back; the kind of all-court rugby that England always crave. But that Lions trip ended with Flutey needing shoulder surgery and led to a frustrating stop-start season with Brive before returning last summer to Wasps.
He is putting in 15 minutes' extra fitness work after training sessions. Wasps' Heineken Cup matches against Glasgow today and Toulouse next Sunday should sharpen him further before England's warm-weather trip to Portugal. As Hape put it last week: "Riki offers a lot and he's been there and played in this [Six Nations] competition before, whereas I haven't."
How about that fly-half conundrum? Flood of Leicester, the incumbent, has his nose in front for Wales on 5 February. In what are clearly his twilight years Wilkinson is described anecdotally by other England players as a withdrawn character in the camp, though much admired. Flutey likes to borrow his guitar for a strum when they are hotel mates; Hape, the former rugby league wing, is more of a hip-hop fan as a part-time DJ.
"Toby is a big boy, he loves attacking the lines and taking defenders on," said Flutey. "If defenders are worrying about him there could possibly be opportunities for me. He's got a good kicking game, a good offloading game. With Jonny we'll always be on the same page, planning throughout the week. Tactically he's a fantastic player, and he loves contact as well.
"I know what pressures the No 10s have on them. Whoever I'm playing with, I'll try and take some of that pressure off them."
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