England fly half and bonafide Rugby World Cup hero Jonny Wilkinson might only be six points shy of the world Test points record but he is still not guaranteed to be taking the kicks for England in their quarter-final showdown with France at Eden Park on Saturday.
England’s match-winning fly-half, whose drop goal sealed victory in the 2003 World Cup final win over Australia, has been in stuttering form at this tournament, missing 11 of his 20 goal attempts.
Significantly, Wilkinson is not certain to be the automatic first-choice goalkicker and will vie with recalled Toby Flood for kicking duties against the French.
Adding spice to the conundrum is that England’s 32-year-old golden boy is just a couple of successful kicks off sidelined All Black Dan Carter’s all-time record of 1,250 Test points.
For all his recent struggles, Wilkinson’s aura continues to loom large as England manager Martin Johnson indicated: “You go into a game like this and you don’t want to be playing against Jonny Wilkinson.”
Wilkinson has been been a tormentor in chief against France in the last two World Cup semi-finals.
He scored all 24 points in England’s semi-final victory over France en route to winning the 2003 Webb Ellis Trophy in Sydney and four years ago he kicked nine of England’s points in the 14-9 win against Les Bleus in Paris.
Johnson has foreshadowed a more up-tempo game with the selection of Leicester’s Flood at inside centre next to fly-half Wilkinson as England look to put behind the conservatism of their dour pool wins over Argentina and Scotland.
“We want to get ball in hand, I think we’re every bit a running team with the guys we have,” Johnson said.
“The way the games have been played are not the way we wanted them to be or our ability to give penalties away and not control the ball.
“We really need to be that little bit better in the first 20 minutes and give ourselves a platform to go on from instead of fighting back from.”
It was replacement Flood’s long pass that prised open the Scots’ defence for wing Chris Ashton to score the winning try with two minutes left.
“Flood and Wilkinson have trained together a lot, there’s always an option when you go to those two and we use it at the end of games quite a bit. I am comfortable with those two playing together,” Johnson said.
Johnson, England’s 2003 World Cup-winning captain, has made several other changes with French-based lock Tom Palmer, No 8 Nick Easter and wing Mark Cueto replacing Courtney Lawes, James Haskell and the banned Delon Armitage respectively.
“Nick Easter is a very good aerial player, very powerful in the carry and very good in that tight and loose situation, and give us some good direction,” he said.
It has been a calamitous World Cup for the French, who became only the second team after Fiji in 1987 to reach the knockout stage despite losing two pool games.
Les Bleus struck rock bottom with their abject 19-14 loss to the Tongans in one of the World Cup’s greatest upsets in Wellington last Saturday.
There has been plenty of soul-searching within the French camp this week and general expectations are that they will lift against the England.
“We changed a lot,” scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili said. “We talked a lot together this week. We didn’t train for three months to stop at the quarter-final.
“Maybe we will never play again in the quarter-final of the World Cup. That’s the motivation.
“We know that if we play the same way we played last week we cannot win against England. It’s going to be very hard, but on Saturday it will be another team than last Saturday.”
Coach Marc Lievremont has again decided to play scrum-half Morgan Parra at fly-half ahead of specialist outside half Francois Trinh-Duc, a major talking point in French rugby circles.
The only changes to the French starting side beaten by Tonga are the return of first-choice No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy in place of Raphael Lakafia while leading tighthead prop Nicolas Mas is in for Luc Ducalcon.