England have been under intense scrutiny this week, but I sincerely hope that, at some quiet moment, away from the intrusions that go with a big tournament, Clive Woodward has sat down with Jonny Wilkinson, put an arm round him and asked him: "What is it you want?"
The thing with Jonny is that he is such a lovely kid, and maybe in his heart he doesn't want to be the boss. England have been tense, less relaxed than they were, and they have lost the aura they had six months ago. You cannot separate the player from the team, particularly with the fly-half. One is the mirror of the other.
This is where Woodward needs to have earned his corn. To tell Jonny that his kicking percentage is the best in the world, and if he misses one every now and again, don't worry about it one little bit. Say to him simply: "Look, Jonny, you're a good player."
Inevitably we turn to France and see a different picture. Frédéric Michalak is at the top of his form, and enjoying the World Cup, and that reflects how his side have been playing. The team are relaxed, and so is he. Tony Marsh is controlling the midfield, they are very big across the back line - until you get to Christophe Dominici - and, unusually for France, they are disciplined and composed. They are based down in Bondi, quaffing the odd glass of wine, enjoying the 35-degree heat (I've been slapping on the sun cream), and they're looking forward to the game.
And yet, and yet... Everyone has written England off down here, but the Aussies want them out of it because they fear them. France will be tempted to play it wide, having looked at the width that Samoa and Wales put on the game against England, and with Michalak at No 10 they can do it. But they also have the potential to make mistakes. So far France have been noted for their close support-play with the back row, but England are good at that too. Richard Hill is back, which is a massive boost. He's a player's player: does the unsung things well, makes crucial tackles. He may be a little bit tentative, but England sacrificed him for the quarter-final to get him ready for this. I feel Josh Lewsey may be a bigger risk, only a few days after a hamstring tweak. Lewsey's in a more explosive position.
There is another aspect about Lewsey I think has been missed in all the talk about the line-up of England's midfield. Plenty has been said about Mike Catt's performance against Wales, but, really, all Catty did was come in and kick. Yes, it took pressure off Wilkinson, but basically it was just taking the game away from Wales. I think Jonny could have looked at that and learned anddone the job against France for himself. If he needs someone else to step up and whack the ball, Lewsey is perfectly capable of doing it. Instead Woodward has taken a gain-line player, Mike Tindall, out of the side, and gone with Catt because of Jonny's mixed form. I would have started with Tindall.
I suppose my point is that when I was a fly-half, I wanted pressure. A fly-half should want to take it all on the chin. You need your nine and 10 bossing the game; that is what they are there for. All the more so when the team are not playing well. Jonny and Matt Dawson have got to hit fewer rucks, and stick to their positions.
Michalak has the advantage for now, but he is a nine playing at 10, and it will be interesting how he reacts if it's a tight, kicking game. People have watched and analysed Wilkinson every week for five years. Michalak is only now coming in for that treatment.
France have been strong in the defensive line, using the rugby league tactic of sprinting up hard over the first three yards and attacking the gain line. That gives Serge Betsen extra time to concentrate on the No 10. But Hill may fancy doing to Michalak what Betsen has in mind for Wilkinson.
It does seem as if other sides have caught up with England. That's a fact of rugby life and nothing to do with age. Martin Johnson and company aren't dictating as much as they are used to, so today they have to turn it up a couple of notches in the front five and really dominate. They are capable of that. On form and confidence, it has to be France. But no one should write England off.Reuse content