Toby Flood to start alongside Jonny Wilkinson

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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson will unleash the "exciting combination" of Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half and Toby Flood at inside centre in Saturday's Rugby World Cup quarter-final against France.

Flood comes into the side for Mike Tindall, who has been sidelined by a dead leg, as one of four changes from England's 16-12 victory over Scotland last weekend.

Tom Palmer takes over from Courtney Lawes in the second row after making an impressive impact off the bench last week and Nick Easter has been preferred to James Haskell at number eight.

Mark Cueto, who was dropped for the Scotland game after scoring a hat-trick against Romania, returns on the the wing after Delon Armitage was suspended.

Johnson has only started Wilkinson and Flood together on one previous occasion, having abandoned plans to use a second playmaker at inside centre.

The vast majority of Flood's 45 caps have been won at fly-half, but he finished the 2007 World Cup final at inside centre and played the entire 2008 Six Nations in the position.

With Tindall out, Johnson has turned to Flood rather than Shontayne Hape to provide an extra kicking option and improved midfield distribution in the hope of testing France out wide.

"It's an exciting combination for us," Johnson said. "It gives us Toby's kicking game, Toby's passing game. He's a pretty experienced Test player now, 40 plus caps. He's been playing well.

"It does give us some different things that we can do on the field when we play those guys (Flood and Wilkinson).

"It's not a gamble. You always put a lot of thought into your selections, no more so than when you're in a World Cup quarter-final.

"Mike took a couple of bangs last week and hasn't really been available to us this week.

"That was part of the equation, Mike's injury and Toby playing very well."

Wilkinson has struggled with his goal-kicking through the tournament and his return of nine from 20 shots is the worst of the World Cup.

Wilkinson and Flood will make a final decision after tomorrow's kicking session at Eden Park as to who will take the responsibility against France.

"Jonny has had a lot of long kicks. You look at kicking stats, a lot of his kicks have been from a long way out," Johnson added. "And he's never flinched from having a shot.

"You go into a game like this, I don't think you'd want to be playing against Jonny Wilkinson."

Easter missed England's victories over Georgia and Romania with a back injury and returns for Haskell, who has arguably been England's most consistently impressive forward.

"I said in front of the team that it's a particularly hard call on James. He didn't deserve it in terms of how he's played," Johnson said.

Lawes and Haskell feature among five forwards on the bench, with Richard Wigglesworth and Matt Banahan covering the back division.

"They will have a massive influence on the game. I've said this before. The guys on the bench are normally on the field at the end," Johnson added.

"Everyone wants to start, we all know that, but actually your role is no less coming off the bench."

France appear to be in a state of disarray, with the coach and players openly criticising each other, but Johnson refused to believe that will work in England's favour.

"When you get to these games you're dealing with a team with a huge amount of pride as individuals, because you don't become a good player without that," Johnson said.

"They've got pride in their team and country, as we do in ours.

"They'll come and play, without a doubt. You watch the Tonga game, there's times when they're a missed pass, a dropped ball away from breaking open and games can change very quickly on that. They are key moments in matches.

"They are very dangerous, no more so than when they're written off when they haven't got anything to lose.

"In 1999 and 2007 when they beat New Zealand they were actually at the point when they didn't have anything to lose.

"They were behind in the game and they've gone for it and we know what happened.

"We can only control ourselves at this point. We've got to get tempo into the game. We didn't do that last week. We let Scotland get the initiative early on.

"We really need to be just that little bit better in the first 20 minutes and give ourselves a platform to go on from instead of fighting back from."

England team to play France in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final at Eden Park, Auckland, on Saturday, October 8 (kick-off 8.30am BST):

B Foden (Northampton Saints); C Ashton (Northampton Saints), M Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers), T Flood (Leicester Tigers), M Cueto (Sale Sharks); J Wilkinson (Toulon), B Youngs (Leicester Tigers); M Stevens (Saracens), S Thompson (London Wasps), D Cole (Leicester Tigers), L Deacon (Leicester Tigers), T Palmer (Stade Francais), T Croft (Leicester Tigers), L Moody (Bath Rugby, capt), N Easter (Harlequins).

Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton Saints), A Corbisiero (London Irish), C Lawes (Northampton Saints), S Shaw (Unattached), J Haskell (Ricoh Black Rams), R Wigglesworth (Saracens), M Banahan (Bath Rugby).