Brian Ashton: Wilkinson and Flood axis should be too clever by half

Tackling The Issues
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As I sat down to write this column, I seriously contemplated driving six short miles up the North-west coast to Blackpool, where the illuminations season is in full swing and Gipsy Rose Lee is available for a crystal ball consultation.

It would certainly be fascinating to hear her thoughts on French prospects in this morning's World Cup quarter-final with England in light of their performance against Tonga last weekend, which to my mind plumbed almost farcical depths. Tonga were very good on the day, but the body language of many of Les Bleus reminded me of their footballing equivalents at the global tournament in South Africa last year. "Where do I want to be?" they seemed to ask themselves, before replying: "Anywhere on the planet, or even off it for a brief while, if it means I don't have to represent my country in this particular contest."

The Dimitri Yachvili-Morgan Parra combination, which I tried to fathom in a previous column, spectacularly failed to ignite. Yachvili performed an outstanding impersonation of a Second World War "Dam Busters" pilot with his bouncing-bomb service and he was not helped by Parra's audition for the main part in a modern-day remake of The Invisible Man. For a spell midway through the second half, he hardly appeared on the television screen, let alone in either half-back position. When you take into account the high error rate of the other 13 Frenchmen on the field, which was hard to credit, you have to say that had Tonga possessed a little composure to go with their attacking ambition, they would have gone perilously close to knocking Les Bleus out of the tournament. What the reaction would have been if this had come to pass, heaven only knows.

Reactions are guaranteed this weekend, for there are no second bites of the cherry now. We have reached "Il momento della verita", as the Italians put it: suddenly, all the elements of high-level performance are exposed; there is no hiding place, no comfort zone. The environment will be challenging, unpredictable at times, and might quickly and easily turn into a hostile one. The battles that win the war are here to be fought and it is those who have the courage to fail who stand the best chance of succeeding.

It would be too facile to drop into lazy journalism and trot out the old clichés about England-France games: all the questions over which French side will turn up; the assumption that England have the Indian sign over their near neighbours in World Cup matches, having beaten them in both 2003 and 2007; the theory that if it rains as it did in Australia eight years ago, it will be a no-contest. Generally, I do not place much credence on interviews with players leading into games such as this, but I have read words from the fine French No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy this week that convince me that France will at least show more interest than they did against the very committed Tongans. However, the two No 9s remain together at half-back (and, I hope from an English point of view, will stay together), so there is still a strong element of uncertainty over how they will approach the game.

England have had another of their "interesting" weeks off the field, with the message from more than one member of the squad being that the players have been brought closer by all the negative publicity. This may well be the case, but surely there are much easier ways of forging the bond needed to excel in a competition of this magnitude. As it is, Martin Johnson goes into the knockout stage with significant line-up changes.

Tom Palmer for Courtney Lawes at lock? Maybe this is the direct result of the important role Palmer played at the line-out when he came off the bench against the Scots last week; maybe he is considered to be the man to crack the French code, given his first-hand knowledge of rugby in that country, where he plays with Stade Français, and his ability to speak the language. The way I see it, this is certainly an acknowledgement of the improvement Tom has made as a player, and his growth as a person, since crossing the Channel a couple of years ago. Nick Easter for James Haskell at No 8? Whatever perceptions people have of Haskell, he has played consistently well in this World Cup and will be desperately disappointed to miss out. The switch could be a sign that England want to use the drive as a major variation in their game. Certainly Easter, again as a replacement, was influential in this area last week, but there is a difference between impacting off the bench and doing the necessary from the kick-off. I'll be fascinated to see how this unfolds.

And who would have thought it? Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood paired, in presumably interchangeable roles from the attacking viewpoint, at 10 and 12. This is a definite mindset shift by the management, for all the recent evidence pointed to an unshakeable commitment to a war of attrition in midfield, with the various combinations involving Mike Tindall, Manu Tuilagu and Shontayne Hape. Now, there is more variation and subtlety in the mix. Not to mention – dare one use the word? – creativity.

Mike Catt, who understands the possibilities of the 10-12 footballing axis as deeply as any recent player of my acquaintance, has frequently called for this combination to be put in place and I just hope there is time for it to come to fruition in the context of this tournament. Wilkinson and Flood have joined forces in World Cup games before, even if they haven't started any, and they have a long history of helping each other out at club level. This, surely, is the essential point underpinning this selection: two midfielders reacting to one another, feeding off one another, working together. Here we have, in key decision-making positions, a pair of individuals offering a wide range of passing and kicking skills that should enable them to bring those around them into play. Flood, especially, has the will and the ability to take on the French defence and get his offloading game going.

Of course, I could be totally mistaken about this selection: it might simply be a move designed to maximise territory – to have available, at most junctures of the game, a combination capable of turning the French back three with left and right-footed kicking. Another thought occurs: England may want Flood to increase the tempo of the game away from the set pieces, although this is not necessarily borne out by the decision to play Easter over the younger, quicker Haskell. I can only hope there has been an emphasis placed on generating fast possession from the tackle area, thereby minimising the need for Ben Youngs to dwell on the ball at the base. With Wilkinson and Flood both able to slot in at first receiver, the trick will be to get the thing into their hands as rapidly as possible.

Finally, and most intriguingly, there can be a sharing and a shifting of the decision-making pressures – something of great value in the event of a dynamic and high-paced game. It means the player in the second receiver role – not necessarily the man with No 12 on his back – will have fractionally more time and space to assess situations, process information from others around him and guide the team down the right avenues at the right time, in the most appropriate manner.

England obviously believe the link between Wilkinson and Flood stacks up defensively and the manager Martin Johnson has been quoted as saying that it opens up "exciting possibilities". I agree with him. I'll put my money on Wilkinson and Flood having a more positive influence on proceedings than Yachvili and Parra, and go for an England win.