Amid the ancient splendour of Oxford, across the road from the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Ben Youngs was pondering a question of the ages. "Who else can come on as a sub and nail a 45-metre kick?" England's scrum-half said when asked to compare the merits of Jonny Wilkinson, his part-time half-back partner, and Toby Flood, with whom Youngs has struck up an umbilical understanding for club and country. "You can count them on your fingers," Youngs replied to his own question – and he didn't mean two hands.
England handled Flood with care during a three-day break in Oxford. It was meant as a refresher course in a seven-week Six Nations' Championship campaign that England have begun in A-plus fashion with wins over Wales, Italy and France, but the Leicester fly-half went up to the Dreaming Spires with a limp in his right leg from a sore Achilles tendon. Flood rested instead of training and though the official prognosis is that he will be fit to face Scotland next Sunday, and therefore Ireland in Dublin the week after, it raised the thought that sooner or later Youngs and Wilkinson may have to start together.
So far in Youngs's short England career – he entered double figures in caps against the French eight days ago – he has spent 37 minutes on the field with Wilkinson: 22 across two Tests against Australia last June, plus 15 in the snare-drum-tight 17-9 defeat of France at Twickenham. In the first two Six Nations matches this year, Youngs was replaced by Danny Care before Wilkinson came on; in Scotland last March it was the other way round: Youngs made his debut as a substitute wing after Wilkinson was replaced by Flood, who has started every Test since. "With Toby we have the same sort of style in how we want to play the game," Youngs said of his Tigers club-mate. "Jonny is amazing at controlling the game. I am not saying that Toby isn't, but Jonny is a world-class player and you have to admire him."
When Wilkinson entered the French fray – and immediately kicked the penalty that had Twickenham cheering more wildly than ever – he played at a fairly shallow angle to Youngs. The 31-year-old passed four times, ran once and kicked none from the service of the scrum-half 10 years his junior, until Youngs was replaced by Care in the 65th minute. It mimicked what Flood might do, and Wilkinson was also heeding the instructions of England's attack coach, Brian Smith, shouting from the touchline to "shorten the passing".
"It probably gives Martin Johnson a headache when he is trying to selectthe team," said Youngs, "but from a player's point of view you have full confidence when someone like Jonny runs on". Youngs has never seen out an 80-minute Test, having been withdrawn in the second half of each of his eight England starts. That apparent pre-determination of Johnson's thinking has some experienced observers scratching their heads, but the presence of Wilkinson as the reassuring wise bird on the bench makes more sense with every match.
The lingering caveat is whether Wilkinson himself could last 80 minutes if he had to. Next in line at fly-half is Sale's Charlie Hodgson, who was included in the Six Nations squad so he would know the calls and moves. "It has been a stable environment since 2010," said John Wells, one of Johnson's assistant coaches. "The 30 players who came through last year's Six Nations and the summer tour are by and large here now. Only Corbs [prop Alex Corbisiero] and Woody [flanker Tom Wood] have been added." Wells did not anticipate changes for the Scotland match, unless Tom Croft, Courtney Lawes or Matt Banahan played a particular blinder for their clubs this weekend.
But Hodgson is no one's Wilkinson when it comes to landing big kicks. And Flood's troublesome tendon is not the only cause for concern. France put Youngs and Flood off their passing; not throughout, but enough to limit the opportunities for the back three. Once when Youngs did get away, Flood was unable to get a legal pass around the corner of a tackle, and Chris Ashton's subsequent swallow dive as he crossed the goalline was in vain. "[Imanol] Harinordoquy almost man-marked Floody, very similar to what Serge Betsen did to Jonny in Paris a few years back," said Youngs.
"Obviously it wasn't such an armchair ride and we tried to force things a bit, myself included. It did throw me and Toby for about 20 minutes in the game. It's better for it to happen in that game and still win rather than come later in the tournament or in a World Cup game. It's probably one of the best things to happen to Toby and me. They stopped us for a bit but we still won."
It was put to Youngs that the Twickenham crowd would expect a hammering of the Scots. "Throw them on the pitch and see how they manage it," he said. "A lot of people will probably think we should have spanked Wales. It doesn't happen. Not for one minute will we be underestimating Scotland or preparing any different to last week."