Brian Ashton omitted Toby Flood, the young midfielder who both understudies and partners Jonny Wilkinson at Newcastle, from his World Cup party a little over three weeks ago. If it made little sense then, it makes no sense at all now. Quite the most sophisticated of the latest generation of English attacking spirits – a Will Greenwood for the new age, no less – his performance in last season's Six Nations Championship was creative and cool-headed in equal measure. A fat lot of good it did him.
And a fat lot of good his absence is doing England, now that Wilkinson is in pieces once again. Today, Ashton will know far more about his senior outside-half's chances of making next week's pivotal Pool A fixture with South Africa than he knew yesterday. If the news turns out to be bad – if Wilkinson strained ligaments when he turned his ankle in training – the decision to pick the rugby league convert Andy Farrell ahead of Flood will be exposed in all its wrong-headedness.
Farrell had been highly impressive in training, where his enthusiasm and application, allied to a strong and vocal brand of leadership, convinced Ashton of his value to the squad. Flood, by contrast, was considered too diffident by half. But on the field of play, where matches are won and lost rather than discussed and debated, Farrell has been less persuasive. There, where it matters, his volumes have spoken silence.
What to do now? If Wilkinson is ruled out for a fortnight, or even the entire pool stage, can Ashton afford to stick by him in the hope that he recovers in time to play a part in the knock-out stage? It is a delicate decision. England would look far stronger if Flood were to be called in, but that would mean shipping someone out, and in the absence of a handy injury elsewhere, that someone would have to be Jonny-boy. With a World Cup to be defended, it does not bear thinking about.
It falls to Olly Barkley to steer the champions through the next few days, beginning with the opening match against the United States this weekend. The Bath outside-half knows what it is to be given the starring role at short notice – his finest international performances have been delivered under such circumstances – and by common consent, he made the most progress of any England player during the seven weeks of the pre-tournament training camp.
"Being selected in this kind of situation turns up the heat in terms of concentration," he said yesterday. "You have to get straight into your stride and act as though you've been in the starting line-up all along, because time is short and there's a lot of ground to cover.
"I feel sorry for Jonny, even though I'll approach this game as a major opportunity for myself. We spend a lot of time together in kicking practice and I'm grateful for his company, because it can be a lonely job."
Four years ago, when Wilkinson was dropping the goal that won the trophy, Barkley was enduring all manner of misery at a rain-soaked Recreation Ground. "I watched the first half-hour of the final, then had to prepare for a Premiership match against Saracens," he recalled. "It was the worst game of the season. The weather was foul and we lost 12-9."
It is inconceivable that he will experience defeat on Saturday, but a poor performance from the pivot position, allied to a negative diagnosis on Wilkinson, will place England's title defence in the gravest jeopardy. To use Barkley's own words, the heat has just been turned up.Reuse content