If it is not quite enough to persuade Danny Cipriani to abandon his plans for a spell of self-imposed exile in the Australian rugby desert of Melbourne, it must surely be enough to make him kick the nearest cat. Precisely two years ago, Brian Ashton dropped Jonny Wilkinson for the last game of the Six Nations Championship and gave Cipriani the opportunity to run Saturn-like rings round Ireland, which he promptly did. It seemed as though a brave new world was dawning, but the light faded to black when Ashton was sacked by the Rugby Football Union.
To all intents and purposes, Cipriani disappeared into the same darkness. Wilkinson may have been dropped again – instead of starting against the French this weekend, he will be slumming it on the bench – but this time, the most gifted of England's outside-halves is out of favour and out of mind. The current red-rose hierarchy do not like him, and the feeling is mutual.
Toby Flood is now the man in possession and if he does not possess Cipriani's all-court game, he is more of a playmaker than Wilkinson, who has failed to build anything resembling a productive relationship with the inside centre Riki Flutey and done little to advance the careers of England's outside backs in a deeply conservative, over-structured, risk-averse environment. The question is this: will Flood's supremacy survive the likely defeat in Paris, or will the manager, Martin Johnson, restore Wilkinson on this summer's two-Test trek to Wallaby country?
Flood, who spent many a long year understudying alongside Wilkinson at Newcastle, went out of his way yesterday to dismiss any notion that his World Cup-winning rival was in terminal decline. "Jonny's a bit banged up," he said, in reference to the heavy punishment Wilkinson received from the Scots at Murrayfield. "He's a fighter, though. We all know how he bites back. He's the ultimate professional – for a long while at Newcastle, I was in awe of him. If we all get dropped, it happens to him less often than it happens to the rest of us.
"I'm excited at being picked ahead of him for this game. The good thing about the England environment is that there's an open debate about selection. It's always been made clear to me that it's a case of 'x' and 'y' going for 'z', rather his reputation being up there and my reputation being down here. We're told selection is based on form and I'm pleased the coaches trust me. It's a big honour to be chosen in front of someone who is so obviously a world-class player, but I'm sure he'll come back strongly."
That's the point with Wilkinson: if Johnson and the rest of the hierarchy wait for him to fall off his standards in the parts of the game that come most naturally to him – his kicking, his tackling – they may find it never happens. In this sense, he is the Neil Back of the outside-half fraternity. Supremely fit and armed with a deep-rooted competitive instinct, the long-serving flanker was keen to continue playing Test rugby long after the seizure of the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2003. It was Clive Woodward who decided to cut him off in his prime, figuring that a 34-year-old's prime was not what he needed at the start of another World Cup cycle. If Back did not like the decision, he had to lump it.
Wilkinson is not yet 31, but he has the injury record of a man twice his age. Pace was never chief among his virtues, and as he is unlikely to emulate Linford Christie by getting quicker as he grows older, this is surely the moment for England to wean themselves off him. They have been overly reliant on his services for years – even Ashton, the nearest thing to a rugby visionary ever to coach the national team, spent a long time looking at the bullet before biting on it – so there is nothing easy about the decision. But it is a decision that demands to be made if the team are to develop a cutting edge in attack ahead of next year's global tournament in New Zealand.
A glance across the water is instructive. On Saturday, the French will field the 23-year-old François Trinh-Duc in the pivot position. Trinh-Duc is hardly what coaches call "the finished article". But he is being nurtured by Marc Lièvremont, coach of Les Bleus, ahead of the Stade Français player Lionel Beauxis, whose marksmanship is every bit as potent as Wilkinson's.
Beauxis is said to be "lazy". No one ever accused Wilkinson of that particular failing, but many of the failings of the England back division can be laid at his feet. If Flood does everything right in Paris, he must start both Tests in Australia in June. And if he gets it wrong? You can almost hear Johnson saying: "Well, there's always Jonny."Reuse content