Peter Bills: England must not start declining Wilkinson

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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson kicked four penalties and dropped a goal to score all Toulon’s points in their 22-15 defeat by Stade Francais in Paris at the weekend.

A neat statistical factor mirrored by another – Wilkinson is easily the leading points scorer in all of French rugby this season with 150 points after 10 games, an average of 15. He has been in superb form with the boot to propel Toulon into fourth place of the French League Top 14.

And yet, and yet... if England are serious about expanding their game in anything like the same way countries such as New Zealand did this year in the Tri-Nations, there is no way on earth they should choose Wilkinson in their autumn internationals, certainly not in the starting role for the No.10 jersey.

The ‘new’ game which New Zealand will unleash upon England at Twickenham on November 6 is one of dynamism; pace, penetration and movement. It is forged upon rapid securing of the ball at the breakdown and a back line that is launched by a fly half offering myriad options; variety, speed and the ability to break, thereby keeping a defence reasonably honest.

Right now, Jonny Wilkinson is offering hardly any of those qualities, not even at club level never mind the international game.

It is seven long years since Jonny Wilkinson’s greatest triumph, his soaring drop goal winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup against Australia in Sydney. Those seven years, many of them ravaged by injuries, have changed Wilkinson as a player. Not as a goal kicker; he remains formidable, absolutely deadly. And the goal he dropped from way out, not far short of halfway, in Paris on Saturday evening was another soaring testimony to his enduring danger as a kicker, even if the ball did bounce on the crossbar before flopping wearily over.

But it is as an all-round player that Wilkinson has declined. Too often with ball in hand, his first action is to veer sideways, seeking moments of space and time to consider his options. The inherent notion of running straight at the defence is rarely considered. If neither a gap nor space for a kick is an option, then Wilkinson tends to hurl the pass.

Yet too often his delay has meant it becomes a hospital pass for the onrushing defence. Several times in Paris, Wilkinson’s colleagues received man and ball at the same moment....rarely an ideal scenario.

It has become a key requirement under these new law interpretations that the No. 10 receives the ball at pace, running forward and, hopefully, using quick feet to change an angle ever so slightly so as to elicit a gap or put others around him into some room. But because he isn’t really attacking the gain line more than once or twice in an entire game, Wilkinson is making it easier for the defence to drift.

He lacks the speed to threaten proper rupture of a defence, meaning that only those around him are likely to penetrate the rearguard. And then there is another problem.

The heavyweight runners from the opposition know well the history of the Englishman’s many injuries down the years. Increasingly, he is becoming a clear target for the opposition runners. Increasingly too, he is bouncing off the tackles he attempts to make on the big men, the heavyweight runners charging forward and seeking contact.

In England, seasons come and seasons go. The debate as to whether Leicester’s Toby Flood is really of true international class, continue. But I cannot see that England have any choice in their selection for the crucial No. 10 jersey to face the All Blacks on Saturday week.

Flood is much the quicker of the two men from a standing start and has an infinitely superior attacking game. Another factor in his favour is his half-back partnership with Ben Youngs, his club scrum half whom England seem sure to choose.

But the main reason England must go with Flood is that Wilkinson’s game is increasingly unsuited, indeed often alien to the entire philosophy of the new fast, attacking game offered by the law interpretations.

Jonny Wilkinson has been a marvellous, wonderfully successful and loyal servant of English rugby. He continues to offer endless courage and goal kicking consistency unmatched virtually anywhere, which demands his inclusion on the bench as a potentially key player in the final stages of a game.

But not from the start. No more.