James Lawton: Cunning Charlie versus Judicious Jonny - the great debate starts here

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The Independent Online

In America they like nothing much better than a quarterback controversy. It throbs around the question of whose hands best carry the destiny of a team. Whole bar-rooms have been demolished in the debate. Here, now, the whole of England can get to enjoy one.

In America they like nothing much better than a quarterback controversy. It throbs around the question of whose hands best carry the destiny of a team. Whole bar-rooms have been demolished in the debate. Here, now, the whole of England can get to enjoy one.

According to much of the rugby establishment, it is outrageous to suggest that Charlie Hodgson is doing more than fill in for the iconic Jonny Wilkinson.

Jonny is the national hero. Jonny won the World Cup. In the celebrating streets of London, young girls who didn't know a ruck from a rusk, waved placards which announced, "Jonny, we want to bear your children". Not only did Jonny come marching home, he went straight to the heart of the nation.

But then is it right to say that because he seized his moment so nervelessly, because his kicks might double as mortar shells and his tackles land like tanks, his return to the England team after injury must be a formality?

Listen to this argument from the great Rob Andrew, and you would imagine the 24-year-old Hodgson is obliged to do something amazing.

How amazing? How about showing that it is genetically possible for an Englishman to play in a No 10 shirt with the same native flair and imagination as someone from Wales or France or the southern hemisphere?

Well, for those who didn't notice Hodgson repeatedly bewildering the South African defence at Twickenham on Saturday, or handling so adroitly a ball which we had been led to believe had the consistency of a wet bar of soap, it needs to be said that it has already happened.

The new coach, Andy Robinson, produced a magnificently prepared team, a pack of previous underachievers rampaging in his own formidable likeness and the general sense that after the long, dismaying summer, England once again looked like authentic world champions.

His defensive guru Phil Larder not only filled in the gaps which appeared so alarmingly south of the equator, he produced a force and a commitment that threw back the touted Boks as if they were a consignment of rag dolls. In his second game, Mark Cueto scored another try, a beautifully co-ordinated affair which saw some brilliant English running and then Henry Paul landing his kick in the new boy's arms.

None of this, however, quite touched the soul of English rugby like the new and thrilling dimension achieved by Hodgson. The first-half try which so undermined South Africans already demoralised by their government's pressure for the "quota" selection of two black players, was so beautifully etched as he ran past two tacklers and utterly bamboozled the hugely experienced Percy Montgomery, you were bound to ask the big question: who else could conjure such a score from behind the English scrum?

Before the game Wilkinson's mentor Andrew, who, interestingly, was involved in his own controversy while fending off the challenge of the more intuitive and creative Stuart Barnes, said that for the moment at least Hodgson simply wasn't in the same league as his boy. Maybe that was true 48 hours ago, but then perhaps the moment has already passed.

When Robinson was asked about the weight of Hodgson's challenge to Wilkinson he became briefly inflamed, cutting across the question with some force and saying that the issue didn't arise. Wilkinson was injured and until he was fully recovered there should be no discussion. Robinson's distaste for sport's celebrity culture is well known. Rugby, he believes as an article of faith, shouldn't have superstars, only a deep supply of players able to fit into a finely grooved team whenever required.

In fact, Wilkinson versus Hodgson runs rather more deeply than a mere battle of sharply contrasting individuals. It could come down to a very basic argument about the development of Robinson's suddenly exciting team. The biggest question is whether England would have even touched the midfield fluency that gave them their greatest edge on Saturday if Wilkinson had been back in place.

The most relevant evidence - which has to be taken from the superbly committed but far from technically flawless World Cup triumph in Australia a year ago - says not.

Wilkinson's contribution to that success was ultimately huge, his winning drop goal going straight into the legends of English sport, but it should not shut out all that went before when it comes to measuring him now against the threat of Hodgson.

In the World Cup final glory it was easy - perhaps too easy - to forget that Wilkinson struggled so long and so hard to bring coherence to England's work in the midfield.

Yes, his kicking was prodigious and acute - and, yes, it will probably always be much superior to that of Hodgson. But then what did Sir Clive Woodward do at the most critical phase of the campaign, when England trailed Wales in the quarter-final in Brisbane at half-time?

No, he didn't get his head together with Jonny's. He didn't demand greater tactical refinement from his young lieutenant. He called in the veteran Mike Catt and within minutes the match was transformed. Despite the brilliance of Wales in the first half, it took only time for a few probing kicks and general field management from Catt for their former outside-half Gareth Davies to turn in anguish and say, "Catt has changed everything... it's over now."

Later, the great Welsh wing Gerald Davies shook his head in sadness and said, "That was probably Woodward's best ever decision."

Yes, Jonny gathered in the World Cup with wonderful nerve in the last seconds in the Sydney rainstorm. Yes, he represents so much that is best in sport. But as a new England team emerges so impressively does this automatically safeguard his future on the international field?

Whatever Andy Robinson says, sooner rather than later it has to be a matter for serious discussion. It is also true that Hodgson's opening submission could scarcely have been more eloquent.