Wilkinson must silence leadership doubts

Fly-half must show decision-making skill as Flood joins back line for injured Flutey / Welsh have the weaponry to embarrass England on centenary at Twickenham

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

*Key men

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.

***

Read Toby Flood's Six Nations Notebook – every Friday before each game

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before