Why Ashton has to stick with beleaguered Wilkinson

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Toby Flood, the Newcastle midfielder who has it in him to provide a lasting solution to one of England's most pressing positional problems, made a number of striking comments at red-rose base camp yesterday, the least accurate of which was that Jonny Wilkinson "played really well" against Wales in the opening round of the Six Nations Championship. The inside centre could hardly have said otherwise, of course – public criticism of a colleague is not part of the professional sportsman's code – but even this entirely predictable response to a loaded question about the most celebrated figure in world rugby put the Wilkinson issue in an intriguing light.

The Wilkinson issue? Absolutely. If it is true to say that Twickenham Man blamed last Saturday's spellbindingly numbskulled defeat on anyone but Saint Jonny – around the bars and burger stalls after the game, Flood himself was taking more stick than his partner – it is equally true that there are none so blind as those who will not see. The fact of the matter was that Wilkinson performed as badly in the second half as Flood played brilliantly in the first – that while the youngster was the least of England's concerns, the elder man was to be found at the other end of the spectrum.

At the risk of being burned at the stake for heresy, a realist might argue the following: that Wilkinson is not the one-man defensive wall he was before his neck gave out on him, along with most other parts of his anatomy; that he is not quite the kicker of old, either – statistics sometimes make mugs of us all, but there was a good deal of veracity in the picture he painted of himself during the World Cup, when his strike rate was more than 30 per cent down on the piercingly accurate Chris Paterson of Scotland – and that if Saturday's events are any gauge, the "comfort blanket" role is also subject to the law of diminishing returns.

As recently as last September, after missing a profoundly ordinary World Cup display the United States and a performance against the Springboks that was at least a dozen times worse, the outside-half returned from an ankle injury to help lift England out of the gutter and point them in the direction of a second successive final. Some of his displays were of an inferior vintage, but he more than made up for missing the goals that did not matter by nailing the ones that did. Equally importantly, he made his colleagues feel good about themselves, just by being there.

But as some lower-ranked members of the England hierarchy were pointing out before the start of this tournament, albeit in whispered tones, there is little sense in continuing to pick Wilkinson simply because he gives those playing alongside him a heightened sense of wellbeing. (Barack Obama could do that, and he wouldn't know a double miss-move from a plate of fried chicken). The non-believers say the quality of his rival outside-halves – Danny Cipriani, Shane Geraghty, Ryan Lamb, Flood himself – has produced a change in circumstances. They think the Great Undroppable should now be bracketed with the Great Unwashed and be judged purely on form.

When Flood, sharp-minded and refreshingly articulate, was talking yesterday, it seemed for a moment that he too saw his Newcastle colleague as "just" another player, albeit an unusually good one. Pressed on the "comfort blanket" theory, he said: "It's not that Jonny has to be there. It's that he's a world-class player. When you set the bar as high as he's set it in the past, you put yourself in the firing line in the press if you play a match and you're not 90 per cent 'there'. The same goes for someone like Tiger Woods."

The light is indeed fading on Wilkinson, but there is no logic in Brian Ashton dropping him now, in the immediate aftermath of a painful reverse. Before the tournament, he could have taken the plunge and been sure of a soft landing. "The start of a new World Cup cycle", "a chance to cast an eye over the field", "give youth its chance"... he would not have required the services of a scriptwriter to help him construct a coherent case. But Ashton did not jump, and now, with the competition up and running, Wilkinson will have to play his own way out of the team. And in fairness to the man, one half of gross tactical mismanagement does not amount to a capital offence.

Besides, England will be quite disrupted enough in Italy this weekend without unnecessary dabblings from the selectors. With David Strettle out of commission – the Harlequins wing could be incapacitated for eight weeks by the latest of his metatarsal calamities – the ultra-substantial rugby league convert Lesley Vainikolo is favourite to make his first start in a union international. Two of Wilkinson's club colleagues, Jamie Noon and Mathew Tait, are contesting the outside centre berth vacated by Mike Tindall, while Ashton also has a decision to make at scrum-half following Andy Gomarsall's travails against Wales.

In the back row, the news is not good. Lewis Moody may be fit for the visit to France a fortnight on Saturday, but Tom Rees is out of the championship with damaged knee ligaments. Half a dozen inexperienced players – James Haskell, Tom Croft, Luke Narraway, Nick Easter, Michael Lipman and Magnus Lund – are chasing the three places on offer.

Chris Hewett's team to face Italy

XV to take on Italy on Sunday:

15 I Balshaw (Gloucester)

14 P Sackey (Wasps)

13 M Tait (Newcastle)

12 T Flood (Newcastle)

11 L Vainikolo (Gloucester)

10 J Wilkinson (Newcastle)

9 R Wigglesworth (Sale)

1 A Sheridan (Sale)

2 M Regan (Bristol)

3 P Vickery (Gloucester, capt)

4 S Shaw (Wasps)

5 S Borthwick (Bath)

6 J Haskell (Wasps)

7 M Lipman (Bath)

8 L Narraway (Gloucester)


16 L Mears (Bath), 17 M Stevens (Bath),18 B Kay (Leicester), 19 T Croft (Leicester), 20 A Gomarsall (Harlequins), 21 D Cipriani (Wasps), 22 J Noon (Newcastle)