The Autumn Internationals are almost upon us and debate is rife over who should be trotting out at Twickenham to face the All Blacks on 6th November. There are disagreements of varying levels among the nation’s armchair pundits regarding most positions but there is a full-on polarisation when it comes to discussing the identity of the man who should be running the whole show – the fly half.
In The Rugby Blog poll, Jonny Wilkinson took 54% of the vote compared to Toby Flood’s 39%, hardly a decisive victory. And The Rugby Blog’s four man panel of self-appointed and entirely inaccurately titled ‘experts’ was divided straight down the middle.
So who will get the nod? It should no longer be seen as a battle between the World Cup-winning hero and the young pretender who grew up under his rival’s wing at Newcastle. They are two players on an equal footing, just like any other two players vying for the same position. Reputations and past achievements count for nothing.
Flood is the man in possession having wrestled the shirt from Wilkinson during the Six Nations and retained it during the summer tour. His trump card is that he played in the impressive but unexpected triumph in Sydney in June.
But there are many who are unconvinced that Flood is the answer. I picked him in my team for the New Zealand game but I definitely count myself among the sceptics. He has 30-odd caps but still plays like a newcomer to international rugby. He has never grabbed a game by the scruff of the neck and bossed it. Of England’s recent fly halves, Danny Cipriani, Andy Goode, Charlie Hodgson and Wilkinson have all left their unmistakeable mark on at least one match. That cannot be said of Flood.
Which begs the question of whether he has the character and ability to carry England into a new age. He is solid, nothing more. There is no part of his game which you look at in awe. There is probably at least one fly half in the country better than him in each facet of the game. But is there any need for anything better than solid? I do not buy the argument that clubmate Ben Youngs being a certainty at 9 works in his favour. You pick the best players, regardless of who they play for. But his solidity complements Youngs’ flair and pace inside him.
In a team bedding down and beginning to build a nucleus of players, a fly half who unobtrusively knits things together may not be a bad thing. He plays flat, passes well, kicks his goals and can set a backline going. That ticks a lot of boxes. He is not going to carve up a team a la Cipriani, or smash someone into the middle of next week a la Wilkinson, but he can make breaks and makes his tackles. And he is probably also not going to shuffle slowly into someone else’s channel or get a load of kicks charged down.
In this respect, Flood is the opposite of Cipriani. That is not to say that he does not have a running game, but that while Cipriani could either win or lose you a game, Flood is unlikely to do either other than with the boot. Ironically given Martin Johnson’s mistrust of the Melbourne Rebel, Cipriani might have won England a few games they have lost and lost them some they have won and left Johnson with exactly the same patchy win/loss record he currently has. But he would have one of the brightest talents in world rugby maturing into a 30-cap player, learning from his mistakes and establishing himself. But that’s another debate entirely.
We know all about Wilkinson. There is not much you can write which has not been written already. He is still the man you would want kicking for your life; he will keep the scoreboard ticking over with drop goals; he will be sturdy in defence, if not as destructive as once he was. But the enduring image of him in the 2010 Six Nations was of a man bereft of ideas on how to get his backline going. He stood deep, shuffled across the pitch, did not challenge the defence and served merely to eat up the time and space of those around him. It is hard to know how much of this was down to the coaches’ instructions, so different a player did he look from the one playing for Toulon.
My feeling is that he is now no longer the man to run the show. With the new laws, the game is faster, possession is key and you need a fly half who is going to challenge the defence to keep them honest. Too many times with Wilkinson at the helm in recent years England’s attacks have spluttered, lost direction and fizzled out. His ability to kick anything under pressure works in his favour but Flood is an 80% plus goal kicker. It is a shame that Wilkinson has never quite developed into the wise old head who can inspire and calm those around him a la Mike Catt. Perhaps Wilkinson has always been too absorbed in his own quest for excellence for that to happen.
Whoever is picked will have to be backed throughout the Autumn series, barring any complete disasters. The time for chopping and changing is over. England need to start producing results. Journalists can debate all they like whether results or performances are more important but the fact is that England need both. They are a year or two behind the curve in terms of the World Cup and they need everything to come together at once. For that to happen they need to establish the way they are going to play. The modern game is faster and requires teams to have multiple dimensions. If England are aiming to threaten all over the park, they must pick the man best equipped to set the team free.
There is very little to pick between two solid players. Wilkinson was once from the very top echelon of fly halves but he is no longer and Flood probably never will be, and if the coaches do revert to a stodgy, conservative, safety-first game, the identity of the fly half becomes largely irrelevant. But, on the grounds of his superior running game and ability to fire the attack, I would opt for Flood.
By Stuart Peel