When Jonny Wilkinson, a player for whom the rugby "game plan" might have been invented, starts talking about playing more instinctively, it is time for England to start worrying. The World Cup-winning outside-half – nice boot, shame about the decision-making – has tacitly confessed to the shortcomings that have earned him a reputation as the most robotic of international playmakers, but it may be that his coaches would prefer him not to start experimenting this weekend. Not at Murrayfield, of all places in Christendom.
The last time Wilkinson appeared in Edinburgh in 2008, he played like a drain and was promptly dropped as a consequence. "The most painful lessons are often the most powerful and for me that is definitely the case," he said after holding off the increasingly hostile challenge of Toby Flood and retaining his place in Martin Johnson's line-up.
No arguing with him there. However, he then went on to say the following: "It was a big experience and it did me the world of good. It taught me that we need to go out and play, that we can't expect to just build a game solely from what we've planned on paper." As he has spent much of the last four and a half months flying directly in the face of that sporting truism, it must be assumed that Johnson and company know about as much as the rest of us on the subject of how Wilkinson will confront his demons on Saturday evening.
They must surely be concerned. Accused by his more vehement critics, some of whom played alongside him in the glory years of the Clive Woodward regime, of being unable to function without a clear set of instructions, Wilkinson has hardly come out fighting in self-defence. "They must see it to say it, or have a reason for saying it," he responded with a shrug. And when asked about his misfiring midfield partnership with the centre Riki Flutey, who barely featured in the defeat by Ireland 12 days ago, he admitted: "We missed some chances in that game, but didn't realise it until we watched the video. Maybe I'm a bit tied in to what I'm doing."
If these were the words of an honest man struggling to rediscover some certainty, they were not the words of a confident one. Outplayed by the exceptional new Irish outside-half Jonathan Sexton, he must now return to the scene of his most dramatic fall from grace for a must-win contest with a team prepared by one of the coaches who best understands him: Andy Robinson, under whom he worked with both England and the Lions. "Andy coaches the way he played," Wilkinson said. "There is no façade. As a player, he was physical, intense, skilful and mixed it every time he went out on the pitch. As a coach he does exactly the same thing, but now he is able to impart a huge amount of rugby brainpower and experience. It means we must go to Murrayfield with a level of inner strength that will enable us to deal with everything we face, on and off the field."
France, hot favourites to beat Italy in Paris on Sunday and set themselves up for a Grand Slam shot against England, have made two changes to the back division that started the victory over Wales in round three. Marc Andreu, the Castres wing, replaces Julien Malzieu of Clermont Auvergne while the experienced Perpignan centre David Marty gets a run ahead of the Stade Français powerhouse Mathieu Bastareaud, who drops to the bench.