Riki Flutey's sudden disappearance from the England midfield for today's fear-fuelled Six Nations meeting with Wales at Twickenham should not, in theory, make much of a difference.
For one thing, Toby Flood is a heaven-sent replacement – an intelligent, attack-minded puller of strings capable of making a difference with ball in hand, as well as with the boot. For another, the saintly Jonny Wilkinson is there to plot a route through the dark forest of Test-match paranoia and on towards the sunlit uplands. His leadership skills are outstanding. Everyone says so.
Everyone, that is, except some of those who worked closely with him during the red-rose glory days and considered him to be less a leader than a follower. No one gave public voice to this at the time – how could they, given the heroic status bestowed upon Wilkinson around the time of the 2003 World Cup? – but now, it is routinely said by the men who shared the England dressing room that the real back-line leaders were Matt Dawson, Will Greenwood and Mike Catt. They, it seems, were the principal decision-makers, the shot-callers, the "let's do it this way" merchants.
This evening, England badly need Wilkinson to make his own decisions and call his own shots, for there are no older, wiser heads – no Dawsons, Greenwoods or Catts – to be found in the vicinity. If he succeeds in managing the game sufficiently cleverly to release the likes of Mathew Tait and Delon Armitage while keeping Jamie Roberts, James Hook and Shane Williams under lock and key, his place in Martin Johnson's squad for the next World Cup will be secure. If he fails, there will be new attempts to unravel the old conundrum: namely, is he really as complete a player as the Twickenham crowd thinks he is, or is he merely a small piece of an outside-half, unnaturally developed?
Two years ago, when Wales won at Twickenham after being run ragged for the first 40 minutes, he was found wanting. If England's defeat that day had much to do with injuries in the back-row department – Ben Kay, a career lock, spent the second half trying, and failing, to impersonate a blind-side flanker – it also resulted from Wilkinson's abject failure to minimise the damage by kicking his lop-sided pack into safe areas of the field. A second poor performance at Murrayfield effectively cooked his goose. For the final game of the tournament against Ireland, he found himself replaced by Danny Cipriani.
Flutey, badly missed by England during the autumn, would have given the back-line unit a reassuring look, but he suffered a dead leg in training on Thursday morning and failed to convince the medical staff that he could recover in time for the game. "It happened in a non-contact session," reported Johnson, the manager, with a bemused shake of the head. "It's a blow to us, of course. But Toby has put in all the work, he trained a lot in the position during our camp in Portugal last week and in terms of international rugby, he's quite an experienced player now."
More experienced, certainly, than the newcomer to the squad, Shontayne Hape. Every bit as much a New Zealander as Flutey but less of a union specialist – he has spent much of his career playing rugby league – the uncapped Bath midfielder was selected specifically as his countryman's understudy for this competition, but his lack of a kicking game persuaded Johnson to stick with the devil he knows. As a consequence, Hape must content himself with a seat on the bench and trust to luck that he is granted an opportunity to showcase his talents at some point during the proceedings.
Johnson, acutely aware of the amount this game might tell us about the progress he has made since the palace coup that removed Brian Ashton from power in the spring of 2008, confessed to feeling both excited and nervous. "If you don't feel that, you might as well go home," he said. "The pressure, the emotion ... this is what it's about. In the Six Nations, you're playing against your neighbours. They are derby matches, almost – maybe the only rugby games some people will watch all year – and we've prepared for this contest as though it's our only one of the season. All our focus has been on beating Wales."
This time last week, the visitors might have crossed the Severn Bridge as favourites on account of their clear superiority in the front row of the scrum. Since then they have lost two Test Lions – the hooker Matthew Rees and the loose-head prop Gethin Jenkins – to niggling injuries, and the absence of Jenkins in particular has tilted things the home side's way. Given Johnson's insistence that this is the strongest England squad of his tenure, victory is a minimum requirement.
Even so, a composite side would feature more Welshmen than Englishmen, and if Johnson's forwards fail to assert themselves at first phase, where the stand-in hooker Gareth Williams (diminutive in the extreme) and the line-out jumper Luke Charteris (quite the opposite) are there to be exposed, there is no telling what Roberts and Hook might conjure in broken play. Back in 2008, the respected open-side flanker Martyn Williams confessed that his side would "never win a game in that way again". They are, however, equipped to win in other ways, and if they do so, the red-rose hierarchy will find themselves answering some very awkward questions.
Spotlight on England
Riki Flutey – sidelined from today's contest with an injury sustained during training – and Sale's electric Mathew Tait, centres with the skill to jump-start any back division.
*One to watch
Northampton Saints' abrasive captain Dylan Hartley, who might just develop into the world's leading hooker.
*Can they win it?
It's possible, but far from probable. Their chances could disappear this evening.
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