The Fly Half Debate – Wilkinson vs Cipriani

Danny Cipriani

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.

8 thoughts on “The Fly Half Debate – Wilkinson vs Cipriani

  1. Couldn’t agree more all round Stuart – one pass is not reason enough to drop him. Woeful though it was, it was out of character. He typefies the 2003 squad in that he can influence a game even when he’s not firing on all cylinders. There was talk of him being less than 100% in the RWC but he still came up with the goods in the semi in particular.

    I agree also that we need to think of 10 and 12 as a unit and find the best combination. I like the sound of Wilko 10-Geraghty 12, or even your combo Stuart of Cipriani 10-Wilko 12. I don’t yet think Flood’s kicking game is strong enough to take the pressure off Wilko, but Flood has time and hasn’t had many starts.

    Cipriani has been an absolute joy to watch this season and I hope we can get a healthy lead in Italy (though it’s NOT going to be easy this year) and get him on for a bit of a no-pressure run-out.

    We have so many good young players in England but it’s really important not to rush them in like we did with Tait in 2005. He’s clearly international class but there’s no rush and let’s keep his confidence high. After all, it’s his confidence that’s got him where he is in the Premiership this year.

  2. Cipriani is a class act. We never know how a player is going to perform on the international stage until we see them play at that level. There are many examples of players who have been awesome at club level, but have failed to make that step up. I don’t think Cipriani will fall into that category – he seems to be overflowing with hunger and self-belief. But we won’t know until we see him play. Dropping Johnny would be a hard decision. But I would like to see DC get some decent game time, maybe the second half if we are far enough ahead (which judging by last week would be 21 points ;-))

  3. This is the first time in Jonny’s England career that England have been mediocre for a sustained period of time. He’s missed the last four years of turgidness. And guess what! He’s suddenly not looking as good as he did when he was in the arm chair behind Johnno and Hillbackdallaglio with Daws inside him keeping him on his toes with Question of Sport trivia and Greenwood outside him picking lines and keeping Jonny relaxed with his dry wit. As Stu, I’m afraid, rightly says, the 10s always get walloped when a team is going badly and praised when it’s going well. 10s are the investment bankers of rugby players: when it’s going well they benefit the most and when it takes a down-turn they’re out. The fact is that if Cipriani wasn’t around, this debate would still be taking place, except instead of DC it would be Lamb or Hodgson (remember him?). Both appear to have a better set of attacking skills than Jonny in the Premiership, but it must be remembered that Jonny plays behind perhaps the poorest pack in the Premiership every week. None of the pretenders would look great in the current England side. Stick with Jonny.

  4. Dude the thing most people fail to realise about johnny wilkinson is he did not only do one kick. Most ignorant football fans who know little to nothing about rugby say I think dan carter because he plays well for the all blacks. Or some other nonsense, I heard something about cipriani he must be amazing. The truth of the matter is cipriani isnt even on the same level as wilkinson. Cipriani got charged down 5 times in something like 4 matches, no world class flyhalf gets charged down more than twice a season if they palyed every game. In fact I dont even remember wilkinson getting charged down, although he must have been charged down at some point.

    The thing is wilkinson is a 1 man team, and englands biggest problem in the last few years has been wilkinson; but nto for the reasons most people think. He scores an average of 14.5 points for international games which is insane! I think the second highest average is somewhere around 10. By the age of 23 wilkinson had scored over 900 points and was approaching the record for the most points ever scored in international Rugby which he recently broke.

    Back to the problem, with someone on your team who pretty much guarantees atleast 9 points a game you dont need to worry about attacking options as the goal scorer can do that for you. Scoring 15 poinbts in one match in quite a few cases can be decisive. As a result of relying on wilkinson, when he was injured England were screwed, as the rest of backs had got lazy as a result of wilkinson had become substandard. However with wilkinson out for so long, England backs have realised they have to get off their backside and actually score tries, which is a good recent turn around for england. I mean imagine England with a fit wilkinson… A further problem with Wilkinsons injuries is that the team lost their best tackler and most players werent capable of covering for wilkinsons absense in that regard.

    It wasnt really a good tackling team that made wilkinsons kicking instrumental, it was a good tackling wilkinson backed by a good tackling team that made England reliable.

    Back to the world cup. During that world cup I would drive a few hours to some remote pub in America that showed the Rugby world cup to see England play. I have to admit in some of those matches almost everyone in the England side would play terribly, but not wilkinson and he would push England onto win the match, even if he had to do it through drop goals. Drop goals btw are one of the hardest possible things in Rugby and few flyhalfs are even half decent at them, yet alone excel at them. Also the fact that Wilkinson has kicked England to two world cup finals with 2 very different teams certainly makes you think…

    If you really want to compare wilkinson to someone, there is no one in Rugby he can be compared to; because in the fly half position he is a league of his own. The person you should be comparign Wilkinson to is Michael Jordan. Both got to where they are through sheer practice, I mean Michael Jordan didnt even make his high school basketball team. Johnny wilkinson used to skive school so he could get his extra kicking practice in. Both players have taken their teams to great heights. Sure Wilkinson was not able to take the falcons as far as he would have liked to, but the wage cap prevented him from doing that.

    The fly half isnt the most important position on the pitch and a game winner; but Johnny wilkinson playing on the pitch at fly half becomes the most important position and a game winner

    I mean you can have the fanciest fly halfs in the world who pull off the cutest tricks, but at the end of the day if they dont get you the points whats the point of having them?

  5. I forgot to add, the only other player I have seen who could pull off a drop kick with pressure like in the 2003 rugby world cup final, is Australian legend John Eels. Now John Eels has to be up with the best players ever.

    Seriously cipriani is medicore at best, everyone is just hoping he is going to be like wilkinson, and are jumping on his support train now in the hopes they will be able to boast about it in the future.

    Sorry about the long essays; but halfhearted Rugby analysis pisses me off so much. I mean when I saw wilkinson play in the 1999 world cup I was stunned that a 19 year old was playing better than all those other useless fly halfs that England had before him. I remember ranting about our fly halfs to no end. When I saw him I said “if he gets better, in 4 years time we may win the next world cup”.

  6. I forgot to mention, I agree with almost all of your guys points as you have provided good anaysis, hence why I decided to post here rather than on a different forum where I will be debating with wannabe rugby critics. The majority of arguments I disagree with, are suggestions that cipriani could deal with the pressure of being a world class rugby international. I mean he has not practiced kicking the ball through the posts 1/2 million times like wilkinson.

  7. Martin says:
    I have no choice but to pick Jonny. He as the upper hand in is kicking than Cippriani. Cippriani is a guy who likes to be to big headed and better than the rest and tells others what to do in any rugby match. But if you mention Danni Cipprianni to a none Rugby supporter they do not know him but mention Jonny Wilkinson most people know who he is. But when Jonny is in a match and england looses they always put the blame on him. But in my eyes 1 man does not make a team. For England to win they all need to pull togeather and play as a team and not do there own thing.

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