Things have reached a pretty pass when England prepare for a World Cup quarter-final – against a deeply fractured but alarmingly dangerous French side at Eden Park tomorrow – with Jonny Wilkinson safely among their number, but with no clear idea of whether the finest goal-kicker of the modern age will be the man taking aim at the posts. Wilkinson will start the game, having recovered from the elbow injury he suffered during the second half of last weekend's narrow victory over Scotland, but with Toby Flood now installed alongside him, there is at least a possibility that the younger player will perform the marksmanship duties.
The England manager, Martin Johnson, treated his audience to a rendition of his time-honoured "you'll have to wait and see" line when pressed on the issue yesterday, but Wilkinson was more forthcoming, if less than decisive, on the subject of what might actually happen. "I think we'll make a decision after we visit Eden Park for the last team run," he said, thereby admitting that a discussion would indeed take place. "There have been times in my career when I haven't been the first-choice kicker: when I was a young player at Newcastle, it was Rob Andrew doing the job. And it's a bit of a myth that I want to take every kick on offer. I'm always willing to take them and always confident I'll get them, but it's not true that I insist on it."
Flood's selection ahead of Mike Tindall, which will be warmly welcomed by those who have long yearned to see some creative ambition in the No 12 position rather than the slow-motion thud and blunder associated with recent performers of the role, was a big talking point yesterday. Johnson took the enigmatic approach once again, refusing to say whether Tindall had been left out because of injury or dropped on form, although he did reject the notion that his World Cup-winning mucker from 2003 had been omitted as a result of the rash of scandal stories generated by his drunken antics in Queenstown last month. (Word from inside the camp suggested Tindall had been dumped on the wholly understandable grounds that Flood was playing the better rugby of the two).
There was also much discussion of the two changes in the pack, where the line-out specialist Tom Palmer and the ball-carrying No 8 Nick Easter were preferred to Courtney Lawes and James Haskell respectively. But it was the idea that Wilkinson's poor return from the kicking tee in this tournament – something less than a 50 per cent strike rate, compared with very high figures recorded by the two French half-backs, Dimitri Yachvili and Morgan Parra – might see him marginalised in this, the sphere of operations in which he has reigned supreme for so long, that really set the masses talking.
He accepted he had been a little too bold for his own good in some of his choices to date – "There was certainly one shot against the Scots that I shouldn't have taken on, and wouldn't if I had to make the decision again" – but denied that his problem was one of ego. "I think I've had that kicked out of me along the way," he said. "I've battled with the concept of ego on a spiritual level and, of course, in some ways, it's a great thing to have: it gives you your competitive nature and allows you to say 'I won't lay down; I won't be beaten.' It's what allows you to smash that big forward coming towards you, to get up when you've been hit. But ego can also be the worst thing in the world from a team perspective, and everything has to be for the team. When I was younger, I based my goals on numbers: I wanted the most of this, to be the best at that. That's the part of ego I don't have any more. Now, I concentrate on whether I'm helping by being around, whether I'm making a positive impact."
Les Bleus tend to fear the Wilkinson impact in whatever way it manifests itself: he did for them in the semi-final of the 2003 World Cup in Sydney by delivering his most controlled, complete performance of the tournament, and he made them suffer once more – in Paris, of all places – four years ago, again at the last-four stage. There is no X-factor about him as far as France are concerned, for they know him all too well.
Flood? He's a different story. The Leicester midfielder, who learnt much at Wilkinson's knee during their time together at Newcastle, does different things to either Tindall or Shontayne Hape, the other contenders for the No 12 spot. Indeed, it might be argued that the word "different" is redundant in this regard. The fact that he does anything at all in the attacking sense sets him apart from his rivals.
"One of my first community tasks when I joined Newcastle all those years ago was to do some coaching at King's School in Tynemouth," Wilkinson recalled. "Toby was in the lower sixth, I think, and it was obvious that he was the go-to guy in the school team, and a very good one at that. When he came to the club, he was completely in tune with the 15-man game we were trying to develop: enormously confident on the ball, a mover off both feet. Now he's with Leicester he's maturing, becoming more accountable – just getting better and better. The thing about his selection for this game is that no one's asking him to play like Mike or Shontayne. He's being asked to play like Toby Flood."
Johnson's move to this midfield arrangement is both sudden and late in the day, but is it in time? Flood is an exceptionally capable footballer, far more accomplished than his more aggressive critics like to let on, but against a French back division – the most potent division yet faced by England in this competition, by a country kilometre – it is asking a lot of him to make the seamless transition from outside-half to inside centre.
By comparison, the manager's other manoeuvrings – the introduction of Palmer and Easter, the enforced recall of Mark Cueto at left wing for the suspended Delon Armitage – are in no way a gamble. Palmer's presence will reinforce a line-out operation that missed a few beats against the Scots, who were aggressive in that department, while Easter's footballing instincts, allied to the quality of his work at close quarters, will be of benefit when it comes to preventing the French pack marching to the beat of their own drum. And while Armitage has been impressive in many ways over the last month, Cueto knows as much, if not more, about the nature of these contests than the rest of the threequarter line put together.
Interestingly, the Northampton wing Chris Ashton made no public appearance yesterday, seemingly on account of his involvement in the harassment of a hotel chambermaid in Dunedin at the start of the tournament. As a peace offering to those who would have liked a word with the leading try-scorer in the competition, the Rugby Football Union conducted an "interview" of its own and circulated the player's thoughts, such as they were, to the fourth estate. It was, it must be said, enough to give paranoia a bad name.
Goal-kicking "It's a bit of a myth I always want to take every kick that's on offer. I'm always willing to take them and always confident I'll get them, but it's not true that I insist on it."
His ego "I've had that kicked out of me along the way. I've battled with the concept of ego on a spiritual level and in some ways, it's a great thing to have. But ego can also be the worst thing in the world from a team perspective"
Toby Flood "The thing about his selection for this game is that no one's asking him to play like Mike [Tindall] or Shontayne [Hape]. He's being asked to play like Toby Flood"
His kicking against Scotland "There was certainly one shot against the Scots that I shouldn't have taken on, and wouldn't if I had to make the decision again"
Wilkinson v Flood
Jonny Wilkinson has uncharacteristically struggled with the boot during this World Cup, with Toby Flood providing a much more reliable pair of feet during the pool matches.
194 Minutes played 129
5/14 (36%) Penalties (100%) 1/1
4/6 (67%) Conversions (75%) 9/12
9/20 (45%) Shot success (77%) 10/13
1 Drop goals 0
26 Overall points 21