It’s been simmering for some weeks but the debate over the future of Jonny Wilkinson and the emergence of the young pretender, Danny Cipriani has burst forth with renewed vigour in the wake of England’s startling collapse against Wales. Wilkinson has been made a scapegoat for the defeat with people citing his extravagant and wildly inaccurate pass inside his own 22, ironically to Cipriani himself, as evidence of his decline. Cipriani didn’t get the chance to show what he could do, brought on out of position through necessity, clambering aboard a ship which was already sinking beyond retrieval.
This attention on Wilkinson in the wake of Saturday is unfair. Fly half is the most exposed position on the pitch. He is the player who looks fantastic when all around him is going well and awful when they are going a little pear-shaped. Saturday was a case in point. Wilkinson played a controlled first half, prompting and probing from a much flatter alignment than we have seen from him for a while. James Hook meanwhile was largely anonymous as the machine around him spluttered and misfired badly.
In the second half, Wilkinson suddenly found himself receiving poor ball with a dearth of options at his disposal. The unbalancing of the back row and the loss of Tindall had much to do with this. He was criticised for kicking too much but having re-watched the second half, it is clear that he really did not have many other options. He is not a breaking fly half and therefore there was little else he could do. He was not blameless for the collapse, but it was hardly all is fault. Hook meanwhile was assuming the controls and playing a very effective role but he did no more than a test fly half should in the circumstances. That he received the man of the match award demonstrates amply the ‘all-or-nothing’ nature of the number 10 shirt.
As Jake White correctly observed after the game, a seemingly flaky fly half is often a symptom of a team falling apart, not a cause. The same goes for a successful team. The 10 will be the one pulling the strings but for every game where he is the standout player, there will be several in which he is having an armchair ride as all around him excel, often doing unseen work clearing a ruck to create quick ball, or running a dummy line to hold a defender.
This brings me on to Cipriani. He undoubtedly has electric talent and his raw materials in attack constitute a more impressive package than Wilkinson. He is quicker and plays flatter meaning that defences cannot take their eye off him but he is just a capable of fizzing a pass out to put a man through a gap. His support play is also impressive. But before he is handed the task of replacing England rugby’s favourite son, let’s look at the evidence objectively.
Cipriani has played 10 at Wasps for half a season and has put in a string of excellent performances. But as said before, the fly half’s display can be as much a symptom as a cause of the team’s performance. Cipriani’s stellar efforts have come in matches where James Haskell, Eoin Reddan, Riki Flutey and Fraser Waters have similarly excelled and should be seen in that context. This is not to take anything away from Cipriani. He is hugely talented, tremendous to watch and plays the game with a refreshing ambition. But let’s not get too carried away too quickly. He was outstanding for half a game against Clermont when his team were on the front foot, exposed in the second when his team struggled. Neither was entirely down to him.
Many of the key attributes of a fly half are not so obvious but are just as crucial considerations. These include ‘game management’ and the influence the player has on a team. These are immeasurable and often only become clear when that player is absent. The effect Wilkinson has on those around him was shown in the World Cup. While there were many other factors at work, his belated presence galvanised his team. It is to senior players such as him that the team will now turn.
Yet it is in this part of the game that Wilkinson did let himself down on Saturday. The team was crying out for leadership, for someone to (pardon the footballism) put his foot on the ball and inject some calm into the proceedings. Wilkinson did not provide this leadership. Granted neither did anyone else but his influence on the team is such that he was more culpable than most. This is the area in which he weakened his cause.
In light of this, would the team be galvanised by the introduction of the young tyro? Would his boyish enthusiasm and refreshing confidence inject new life into the team? Possibly, but now is not the time. Firstly, there were promising signs on Saturday and evidence that England’s game was taking shape – it was the mental side where they were found wanting. Secondly, you should not overhaul your team after one game. I called for a Cipriani-Wilkinson 10-12 combination before the tournament. But having picked Wilkinson and Toby Flood, Ashton must stick with them and give them a chance to shape the team.
On form alone, Cipriani is the more compelling contender. He will win many, many caps and could be something special. But to take Wilkinson out of the team would destabilise it even further. Drop Wilkinson after one game in which he made only one glaring error, and the players will see that nobody is safe. This would send out all the wrong messages to the players and fear would creep into their performances. This would be disastrous. Beyond that, Wilkinson has earned his place indisputably over time. He is not in the team because of who he is, but because of what he has achieved and what he is still capable of. Let us not forget that 3 months ago, Wilkinson was a hero, perceived as having rescued England’s World Cup. Are we really that fickle?
By Stuart Peel
The England team to face Italy will be announced at lunchtime today – will Cipriani be picked? Have your say this morning and check The Rugby Blog later for the full team line-up.