Wilko whacking continues

Neil Back believes Jonny Wilkinson should be shifted to inside centre to give Danny Cipriani a start at flyhalf.

Wilkinson had an indifferent Six Nations opener against Wales last Saturday, and his afternoon reached its nadir when he threw the speculative pass that lead to Wales’s opening try. However, given the outstanding servant Wilkinson has been for his country over a career that rarely saw his form drop below an acceptable level, the reaction of the English media and public is truly perplexing.

Now former England World Cup winning flanker, Neil Back, has weighed in on the debate, suggesting that Wilkinson should be employed at inside centre.

“I wouldn’t overly panic if I was Brian Ashton, but he has got a real dilemma now,” Back told The Times. “Does he stick with Jonny at 10 or does he bring in Cipriani or [Shane] Geraghty? And does he stick with [Toby] Flood or move Jonny to 12? It’s time now to give Cipriani a go. I’m sure that if England had maintained their lead against Wales, Cipriani would have come on and Jonny would have moved to 12. But we’ll never know now.”

“There’s less pressure in terms of time on the ball and there’d be a better opportunity to scan where the space is and communicate. In England’s best days, it was Will Greenwood who ran the show at 12 and called the plays. Jonny was able to execute those very accurately [from fly-half]. Maybe moving Jonny out to 12 with a bit more time and space would help with his distribution as well.”

The other pro in playing Wilkinson at inside centre his having a right foot/left foot combination in the 10-12 axis, giving the Poms a range of tactical kicking options should that be required. But the fact that there are questions around Wilkinson’s value to the side, and more importantly that a rookie 20-year-old is seen as the answer to their woes, is a good indication of the state that England are in at present.

They never had a succession plan after their 2003 World Cup win, with many of their senior players hanging around far longer than they should have. Wilkinson is a soft target for their notoriously impatient public and media and the fact that one of his former teammates has jumped on the bandwagon is disturbing at best.

Those who understand the game know that nothing in rugby happens in isolation. The forwards determine the influence their flyhalf can have by the type of platform they lay for him. England’s forwards, in the last five years haven’t even come close to the formidable unit that destroyed all before them in 2003 and 2003. That was when Wilkinson was at the peak of his powers, and had Matt Dawson, Will Greenwood and an in-form Mike Tindall to ease the pressure on him.

This is not to excuse Wilkinson’s recent form, which has been far from impressive. He has some soul searching to do and being the perfectionist that he is, will be deeply disappointed with his recent showings. But would be well advised to ignore the chorus of criticism from his countrymen.

Back, Leicester Tigers’ technical director, was one of the men responsible for trying to lure Wilkinson away from the Newcastle Falcons when he was deciding on his future. Ultimately Wilkinson decided to sign with Newcastle for two more years. That decision, said Back, was counterproductive for his career.

“As a player, I always found that the more pressure you’re under for your place, the better you play,” Back said. “I’d have liked to see him try his hand at another club and have real competition for his place. He hasn’t got that at Newcastle, he’s a bit comfortable. I understand the reasons he’s stayed, but for his own future, I’d have liked him to stretch himself and to be put under a bit more pressure.”

There’ll be a time to question Wilkinson’s value to the England side at flyhalf, but it certainly isn’t now. By shifting Wilkinson to inside centre England will be treating the symptom and not disease.