Certain moments in rugby matches simply do not feel right. Perhaps it was the scruffy nature of Geordan Murphy’s winning drop-goal, but as the players wheeled away to celebrate, the mind was already turning to Toby Flood, and questioning why when as the team’s kicker and 20 metres out from the posts, his captain had felt the need to step in.
There is a danger of over-analysing certain incidents, but Sunday afternoon’s falls outside that category. Having driven through the Saracens half through multiple energy-sapping phases, 26 being the count by the time Murphy struck, Flood had been in position in the pocket for over half of those. Starting from an albeit difficult 40 metres away from the posts, a series of drives surged Leicester into the Saracens 22, and into a central position.
A lack of communication between Flood and his scrum-half James Grindal saw him waiting seemingly for an eternity. Yet with Leicester now camped five metres from the posts and dead centre, Murphy ran over to diffuse the situation, moving Flood to his right, before finishing the job.
The ball goes through, Leicester celebrate and Saracens are devastated. Yet all eyes are on Flood. In the scenario that is made for a side’s fly-half to step up, much like a field goal kicker in the NFL, Flood failed to take responsibility. The occasion may not have been on the same level as Joel Stransky’s or Jonny Wilkinson’s moments of glory, but as the side’s kicker and number 10 that is the job he is paid to do.
One potential argument is that having recently returned from a knee injury, Flood’s lack of game time contributed to him being unable to perform in a pressure situation. Except that by the time the drop goal opportunity presented itself in injury time, Flood had played 160 minutes of Premiership Rugby since his comeback. On top of that, a poor performance against Exeter aside, he had struck the ball sweetly all afternoon at Vicarage Road, missing only two shots at goal from difficult angles and landing three penalties. Plus, with Flood we are not talking about a rookie, but a 26 year old who has racked up more than 80 appearances in the Premiership since his debut in 2005.
The issue is that in many people’s eyes, Flood should make an immediate return to the England matchday squad to face Wales this weekend. The heir apparent to England’s number 10 jersey for too long, he has not started a match at fly-half for his country since facing Georgia in the Rugby World Cup, with England playing five times since. Considering he was identified initially as part of England’s new leadership group by Stuart Lancaster, his failure to put himself forward in such a key moment fails to inspire confidence.
It all but accentuates the need for Owen Farrell to start at fly-half against Wales, not Flood, in order to allow more creativity from Flood’s Leicester team mate Manu Tuilagi at outside centre, with Charlie Hodgson dropping to the bench. Coincidentally, Tuilagi also recently returned from injury, and showed enough good touches against Saracens to make his involvement against the new Six Nations favourites a necessity. With his confidence still shaky, Flood would be better served playing for Leicester again next weekend, before being involved in training in the build-up to facing France in Paris.
by Ben Coles