It is difficult to determine the precise percentage of the England rugby public who would prefer to see Jonny Wilkinson playing alongside his old clubmate and protégé Toby Flood in the red-rose midfield, rather than playing second fiddle to him off the bench. It must be pretty substantial. But as Wilkinson himself acknowledged yesterday in startlingly frank and honest terms, the upturn in the fortunes of the national team has coincided with his demotion – an admission made all the more poignant by the fact that Flood was sitting next to him while he made it.
"I guess the best evidence you can have is to look at it results-wise and flow-wise," said the World Cup-winning outside-half. "The relationship Toby has created and put in place with the other guys is something that wasn't quite there when I was playing."
Flood immediately leapt to Wilkinson's defence – "That hasn't been down to individuals; it's been down to us changing things as a team," he argued – but the cat was out of the bag. Wilkinson may still be the biggest box-office draw in the sport, but he has concluded, albeit reluctantly, that if England are to develop an all-court game to equal that of the market leaders New Zealand, he is not the man best placed to help them do it.
"You can want and have all the things in the world, but there's no fun in it unless you earn them," he continued. "I'm desperate to see what Toby can do with his rugby, how far he can take it – both for his sake and for the sake of English rugby and its future. He's lifted the bar for me at the same time, and I welcome that. There's competition between us, but no animosity. It's about helping each other and repaying that help."
Wilkinson, who appeared with a nasty gash on his forehead that may or may not have been caused by banging his head against a brick wall, would certainly have started this weekend's Six Nations game with Scotland at Twickenham had Flood not made an unexpectedly rapid recovery from the Achilles tendon injury he suffered midway through the victory over France 12 days ago. But the younger man survived two highly physical training sessions on Tuesday, thereby proving his fitness, and given the reluctance of the England manager Martin Johnson to fiddle unnecessarily with winning teams, he stands a reasonable chance of beating his mentor to the selectorial punch for the 11th time in succession.
Not that Flood feels superior in any way: indeed, he still feels wholly inferior to Wilkinson when it comes to nailing the crucial kick at the crucial moment. When the master took over from his one-time apprentice against the French, he was immediately faced with an eye-wateringly difficult penalty shot from the best part of 50 metres that would give England an eight-point lead – an advantage both sides knew would be decisive. "If the roles had been reversed and I'd been coming on to take that kick," Flood admitted, "I'd have been saying something along the lines of 'thanks a bunch'."
Such thoughts do not occur to Wilkinson, apparently. "It's very difficult to get this across to people who aren't in the thick of it, but you're grateful for the involvement – for the chance to get your hands dirty," he explained. "And quite honestly, every kick gets you the same way, whether it's from 10 metres or 50 metres, whether it's in front of the sticks or out there by the corner flag. They all set the heart pumping, and it's at that point that you need to take strength from every second of the preparation you've done during the week – that you need to be able to say: 'I really believe I'll kick this because I have the evidence that allows me to believe.'" People may have called him a basketcase in the past, but has there been any player in recent rugby history with more reason to trust his modus operandi?
One way or another, it was a day of admissions. The defence strategist Mike Ford, one of the longer-serving members of the back-room team and generally the most forthcoming with his thoughts and opinions, shone a fresh light on the change in England's approach from rugby as it was played in the primordial swamp to rugby as it is played among the stars.
"We analysed things after the autumn series in 2009 and decided something had to be done," he said. "We knew that we had to score 20 points minimum to beat teams in the Six Nations and at least 25-27 points to win games against the big southern hemisphere sides, but we weren't anywhere near that. I remember us playing the All Blacks that year and losing 19-6. They scored only one try, but we weren't going to win that match in a month of Sundays because of the way we were playing.
"I think we've created an environment where the players are encouraged and empowered. I think there was probably too much 'tell, tell, tell' from us. We trust the players to play with freedom now, to have a 'no fear' attitude, and they trust us not to hang them out to dry if they make a mistake. But it's been a two-way thing. In the past, some people came into the squad and just looked after themselves and their own performances. In this group, it's the players who are challenging us to make them better. If we're not there yet by any means, we're on the right track."
Yet Ford knows as well as anyone that a first Twickenham defeat against Scotland in more than a quarter of a century will leave the team open to intense criticism. "A funny thing, perception," he said. "In '09 we conceded two tries in losing 18-9 to the Wallabies and people criticised our defensive game. Last autumn we conceded two tries in beating them 35-18 and people said our defence was brilliant!
"It's our job to work out ways of tweaking what we do in defence and making it better. Yes, it was satisfying to restrict a very good French side to nine points last time out, but this is a different game. The Scots will be desperate, and I've spent enough time working with Andy Robinson to know that he'll be hurting. I think I can tell you exactly what pattern they'll use against us, but that doesn't mean we won't show them complete respect."Reuse content