Time is ripe for Hodgson to fill Wilkinson's boots

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The Independent Online

Just in case you had forgotten, Jonny Wilkinson used to play outside-half for England - rather successfully, if memory serves. The chances of him playing there again depend on two things: the nature of his recovery from surgery to repair the ravaged nerves in his neck, and the quality of his replacement's performances over the concluding seven days of this world championship season.

Just in case you had forgotten, Jonny Wilkinson used to play outside-half for England - rather successfully, if memory serves. The chances of him playing there again depend on two things: the nature of his recovery from surgery to repair the ravaged nerves in his neck, and the quality of his replacement's performances over the concluding seven days of this world championship season.

Charlie Hodgson may not appreciate it at this precise moment - the Yorkshireman has endured a rough ride of late, bless him - but he has it in his power to force a radical realignment of the red rose back division.

There is a thought in the England camp that the long-term replacement for Will Greenwood at inside-centre will not be Stuart Abbott of Wasps, who fills the position against the All Blacks at Eden Park today, but Wilkinson, who played much of his early professional rugby in the position. The logic is easy to understand. Wilkinson's supreme defensive skills and the potency of his kicking are every bit as valuable at No 12 as at No 10, and a shuffling of the cards would allow a more instinctively creative and imaginative footballer to perform the pivot role.

Candidates? There are two: Olly Barkley, of Bath, and Hodgson. Barkley has a touch of gold-dust about him, but is increasingly viewed as a chip off the Wilkinson block. Hodgson, on the other hand, is as different to England's drop-goal maestro as Gareth Chilcott is to Olga Korbut. If England are serious about adding a much-needed dimension or three to their staid and stolid attacking game, they will surely favour the latter alternative. But Hodgson has to help the process along by bringing his undoubted ball-playing virtuosity to bear on world-class opposition.

Ideally, the process will begin here in Auckland, and continue when the tourists confront the Wallabies in Brisbane next week. Hodgson is not daft; when he arrived in New Zealand at the start of the month, he suspected he was about to encounter a form of rugby immeasurably faster and more dangerously penetrative than any he had yet faced in an England shirt. That suspicion was confirmed by the All Blacks at Carisbrook last Saturday. Not only did a rejuvenated silver-ferned pack give their celebrated opponents a hurry-up of mythic proportions, they gave their weaver of midfield spells, Carlos Spencer, the opportunity to play the stuff of Hodgson's own dreams.

"Spencer? He's not bad, is he?" the Sale stand-off agreed. "You never quite know what he's about to do because he has so many tricks and party-pieces in his armoury. What is more, he knows you don't know. There were times last week when I caught his eye, and realised he was smiling at me. It was pretty unnerving, that smile. You can't help wondering what's coming when he has that expression on his face."

King Carlos, as the Aucklanders christened him when he scored 33 points on his international debut against Argentina in 1997, is without question the most cocksure character in the All Black party. Even when the New Zealanders mess up, as they did in their World Cup semi-final defeat by the Wallabies in Sydney last November, he backs himself and his trickery.

Hodgson, less extravagant by nature but no less ingenious with ball in hand, has yet to cast off his inhibitions - he possesses the vision thing, but has offered precious few glimpses of it while wearing the white of his country. The apprenticeship cannot last forever. It is time he crossed the line separating promise from achievement.

"It took me a while to get into the game last week," he admitted. "The pace was far quicker than anything I'd experienced [Hodgson's previous Test starts at outside-half had been against Romania at Twickenham in 2001 (winning margin: 134 points) and the Pumas in Buenos Aires the following year] and, to be honest, it was more physical, too.

"Richie McCaw, the New Zealand flanker, was in my face for an awful lot of the game and allowed me very little space in which to manoeuvre. Having a player as good as him breathing down your neck makes life difficult, to say the least; if you're not winning the collisions and the ball you're receiving is scruffy, it tends to be a long match for someone in my position.

"Under such circumstances, it is the outside-half's job to influence things with his kicking game. Unfortunately, I put in a couple of bad ones in Dunedin, and they didn't help our cause. Against a side as good as this lot, everything has to be right - and I mean everything.

"Did I yearn for the opportunity to show what I could do? Of course I did. But playing the All Blacks in Dunedin doesn't have much in common with sticking 100-plus points on the Romanians. It's not really the same game, is it? Sometimes, you have to accept the reality of a situation, roll up your sleeves and make the best of it."

Hodgson went some way towards doing just that at Carisbrook. He missed a couple of tackles in horribly public circumstances, and set his struggling countrymen even further back on their heels by overcooking some of his tactical punts. But he held his nerve and worked as hard, if not harder, than any fellow back, with the notable exception of Mike Tindall. When he boarded the team plane and got the hell out of South Island last Sunday, he did so with a semi-clear conscience and a very clear of idea of the scale of improvement required.

He even saw an amusing side to the defeat in Dunedin, once it was safely behind him. "I didn't hear any sledging from the All Blacks - they made all their points with their tackling," he said. "But I did hear one thing when I was lining up my one shot at goal. It was an English voice from the terraces, chanting: 'We want Jonny.' That's when you know you're up against it."

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