Wilkinson and Flood vie for the keys to England’s Chariot

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.

Poll resultsIn 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

5 thoughts on “Wilkinson and Flood vie for the keys to England’s Chariot

  1. Really great article, but personally I reckon this is a bit harsh:

    “Wilkinson was once from the very top echelon of fly halves but he is no longer and Flood probably never will be

    He’s been messed around with England, either earning half his caps off the bench or shifted between 10 and 12 from game to game. The last time Flood was given a Six Nations to show what he can do, we ended up scoring 16 tries in 5 matches. He’s getting better every season and seems to be thriving with the added responsibility at Leicester. Let’s see what he can do with that same responsibility for England, and not write him off already as a ‘probably never will be’

  2. By the top echelon, I mean Wilko at his peak, Carter, Lynagh, Larkham, Bennett, John, Goode (spot the deliberate mistake). He will have to add considerably to his game to be ranked even close to any of them. I am sure he will always do a very reliable job for England but he will have to show a lot more than he has in his 30 odd caps so far if he is to become the ‘go-to’ guy. Put it this way, if Geragthy, Lamb, Cipriani and Flood all maximise their potential over the next 10 years, Flood will probably be the last in line. Thus far however, he is the only one who has come close to his potential and he deserves his place for that. I’m just not convinced he has as many tools in the locker as the great fly halves. I find him quite a hard player to get excited about. I’d love to be proved wrong, let’s hope he does so over the coming season.

    I take your point though Paddy about him not really having a decent run. Also, unlike most fly halves mentioned as great, he has not played in a particularly good team yet. When all around him are playing with confidence, thus lessening the responsibility on him, we could see a completely different animal.

  3. I think a lot of the misgivings of Flood at international level do indeed come from the fact he hasn’t played in a truly good team yet. Look at the team around Wilko in his prime, Carter now, the Welsh team of yesteryear etc….all great teams!

    Flood has really flourished since arriving at Welford Road, and I think he has earned his right to a run of games at 10…if then he isn’t the man then so be it; he’s been a bit-part 10/12 for the last few years, so a littke confidence from the coaches and consistency may pay dividends!

  4. Agreed. The fly half often either gets all the plaudits or gets torn to shreds. But often (athough not always) he is more a symptom than a cause of how the team is playing. With Flutey likely to be missing Flood will have to take on even more responsibility. Assuming he is picked I think we could learn an awful lot about Flood this autumn.

  5. Fair points Paddy and John, but you can’t argue that he will ever rank with Stuart’s list of the all time greats, surely? Would you really put him in the top 3 all-time English 10’s? For me one key missing ingredient is bottle (which was apparently Johnno’s misgiving with Cipriani). That’s why I end up agreeing with Stuart’s conclusion – Flood’s only preferable if you think we can keep him in his comfort zone by dominating up front (or at least holding our own). If we get outmuscled and outpaced in the forwards, then whoever we have at 10 is in for a very rough afternoon, and in those circumstances I would rather start with Jonny.

    For the AB’s game, I’m far more worried about who we play at 8….

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