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Stepping up: Toby Flood says England are still learning, proof of which came in the loss in Cardiff, where the going was tough. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Toby Flood may give the impression he was made for rugby but he never really saw it as a career – it happened by accident.

In the opinion of many rugby experts, England’s performance in the 19-9 defeat to Wales last Saturday was not so much an accident as a car crash waiting to happen. But the 26-year-old England fly-half is taking me on a more reflective journey as he talks of why he became a rugby player not an actor.

The stage or screen would have been the obvious career choice. Both his grandfathers were actors, one of them, Albert Lieven, played a German general in The Guns of Navarone and his parents are still involved in the theatre. But Flood says: “It just never appealed to me.”

He got his first taste of rugby as a six-year-old when his dad, Tim, who loved the sport, took him to a try-out session. Flood was hooked and his talent was recognised in later years when he represented Northumberland Schools at Under-16 and Under-18 level. Despite that, it was only when, aged 17, he was offered a place at the Newcastle Falcons academy that his thoughts turned to a career in the game.

He confesses: “I did not aspire to become a rugby player. To be honest by the time I was 18, I didn’t know what to do. I was thinking I’d get into business [he has a degree in business management], move to London and find my feet somewhere. Then I was given the opportunity at Newcastle and I thought I’d better go for it. I was lucky to make the leap.”

This also meant he was reunited with Jonny Wilkinson, a man who had come to his school in Tynemouth to give some lessons. Since then the two men have given the impression of being joined at the hip as they contend for the No10 shirt. Flood, the star of the national team’s revival last autumn, seemed to have secured it but England’s displays against Wales – victory with Wilkinson before defeat with Flood – may mean the Leicester man has now lost it.

So is this a case of the old mentor getting one over his pupil?

The moment I mention Wilkinson as his mentor, the normally fluent Flood pauses, suggesting he does not see him that way. After a long “Mmmm,” he finally says: “Well, he only came into my school to do a couple of sessions. He was at our school so briefly. A lot has been made of it.”

But even if Wilkinson, 32, did not mentor Flood, he did influence him. “When I went to Newcastle, you looked over the changing room and saw a guy that was training harder and longer than a lot of people,” says Flood. “If you came into a squad and the people who were supposed to be the best players in the world were always drinking and laid-back and not doing anything, then maybe you’d follow suit. But he has such a work ethic about him that you thought, well . . .”

Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Flood does not complete the sentence but you know the man whose kick won the 2003 World Cup set the benchmark for his rival at the start of his career.

And, with England’s World Cup beginning in less than a month, Flood admits Wilkinson has never been far from his mind, even when he is getting ready to sleep.

“Jonny has trained fantastically well,” he says. “It keeps you on your toes because you go to bed at night and suddenly think ‘God, he did really well today, didn’t he? He did this pass or this kick.’ And you think, ‘God, if I’d done this or that a little better.’ We’re also doing weight sessions in the same group. So Jonny and I will do weights and you’re thinking ‘Oh well Jonny lifts this much . . . ‘”

Flood puts a favourable spin on this as he says: “That shows there’s this real competition throughout the whole squad. If one guy’s slightly off form, there’s a guy straightaway stepping into his shoes. That’s the good thing about where we are at the moment.”

Not that England managed to produce too many good moments in Cardiff on Saturday but for Flood the optimism is based on the contrast between now and 2007. Then England, as holders, went to the World Cup in France with no expectations but got to the final with Flood part of the team that lost to South Africa in Paris.

“Compared to 2007 this is a controlled atmosphere,” says Flood. “The guys are working to get better and to work as a unit much more than we did four years ago. 2007 felt like a selection camp. It was, ‘Well if I’m a bit better than him today, maybe I’ll go on the plane.’ There was a real need for the players to put their hand up and impress the coaches. This one is more of a training camp, there’s more knowledge of what we’re doing, how we’re behaving and what the squad may be. Obviously, there’s still lots of room for manoeuvre but Johnno [Martin Johnson] and all the coaches have an understanding of what they want.”

The contrast between team manager Johnson and England’s 2007 head coach, Brian Ashton, could not be greater.

“Brian was very different to Martin, more laissez-faire: he’d let things happen,” says Flood. “He was very much about player power. So he let you go out there and work things out for yourself. Martin knows what he wants and brings a cool approach in the way he speaks. He brings a real depth of belief with what he says because he’s been there and done it. There’s a huge amount of respect within the side for him.”

Johnson was captain when England were crowned champions and Flood believes there is a lot of the former lock in the current skipper, Lewis Moody.

“The way he plays certainly is like Johnno,” he says. “He was a guy who led from the front and Lewis will do exactly the same. You know if it was a brick wall we had to run through, Lewis would do it for you.

“Lewis has always been a bit crazy. That is crazy in the sense that he’ll do absolutely anything. In training, he’ll tear into things. He’s probably been injured more times in training than he has in a match. He can’t distinguish between training and a game – it’s all 100 miles an hour. And the guys respond to that really well. You look at it and raise your eyebrows a little bit and just think, ‘Well that’s Lewis’.”

Predictably, Moody is struggling to make the final squad – named next Monday – after injuring his knee in the first match with Wales. And while England may be better placed than in 2007, Flood does not anticipate his team tearing into the opposition.

He says: “There are about six or seven sides on the day that can beat each other. You fear everyone in that top six or seven. In our group, we fear Argentina because of how well they went in the last World Cup. And you actually worry about Scotland because they lost by six points to England.”

And, for all the progress he claims England have made, he admits they are very far from reaching their peak. “We’re still learning. There are still young guys who are in their tens of caps that hopefully can do better.”

Hosts New Zealand have a reputation for being World Cup chokers – their one title came in the inaugural tournament in 1987 – but Flood accepts they are the team to beat.

“They are ultimately a great side and the strong favourites at home. They’ve been at the fulcrum of rugby for nine years. The same sort of set up and side makes them very dangerous. There’s such knowledge in that team. You look at New Zealand, there are guys with 50, 60 caps. That’s what we aspire to.”

Johnson told the England team on the first day of training that his aspiration was to get to the final. As I remind Flood of that, he says: “Fingers crossed, let’s say I hope we get out of our group in a happy position. Then, as last time, it suddenly speeds up towards the final, so hopefully you get there.”

And at the final, if he is still wearing the No 10 shirt, will he fantasise about winning the World Cup, with a kick like Wilkinson eight years ago?

“No, I don’t think Jonny ever fantasised about that,” he says. “You don’t fantasise about that moment, ask anyone who’s won a tournament or kicked a goal in the last minute. You don’t do it for yourself. You do it for the team. You fantasise about winning the trophy as a team. I hope we win 45-0 in the final.”

After Cardiff, this seems far-fetched but, perhaps the real clue to Flood’s thinking is provided in the book he is taking to read during the World Cup.

“Sometimes during the tournament you’re going to be locked in your room,” he says. “You can’t go out for a couple of days before a game, so reading a book will be important.”

Given what has happened to England, Flood’s choice seems prescient: it is Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, the story of how, after coming close to defeat in the Second World War, Russia turned the tide on the Germans.

Flood must be hoping there will be a similar turnaround for England when the tournament starts.

      

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