England with pivotal decision to make for quarters
Updated: October 04, 2011, 20:47
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) After twice kicking England to victory over France in knockout rounds of previous World Cups, Jonny Wilkinson will have to overcome form and injury concerns to perform a third act at rugby's showpiece event.
Wilkinson landed five penalties and three dropped goals in the 24-7 win in the 2003 semifinals en route to his starring role in the final, then returned four years later to contribute nine points in a tense 14-9 triumph as host France was bundled out in the final four.
This time, Wilkinson's arm injury and a misfiring boot which has landed just nine from 20 goal kicks have given England manager Martin Johnson a selection conundrum for the quarterfinal against the French on Saturday at Eden Park.
Toby Flood made a compelling case for consideration at flyhalf in his nine-minute cameo as a substitute in the 16-12 win over Scotland last weekend that sealed England's qualification from the pool stage. With England trailing 12-9 and five points away from being knocked out of the tournament, Flood's cutout pass set up Chris Ashton for the only try of the match and he then steered the conversion through from the sideline.
Wilkinson had earlier missed three straight penalties and two attempted dropped goals that would have alleviated the pressure on England.
Flood was ambivalent, however, about how much weight should be paid to past deeds against the same opponents and to recent performances.
"You want to be selected on current form, not on how eight years ago I was this and I was that. I was great when I was 12,'' Flood joked. "At the same time, you understand how some people have that ability against certain sides. There is an edge there and that will be on his side of the bar. Maybe that is why you have to pick him.
"You never wish anyone to be injured and, by all intents and purposes, he will be fine and I think he is in a strong position. The (injured) arm looks good and he is happy.''
Flood will still have an important role to play if selected on the reserves bench, a vantage point from which insights can be gained.
"At halftime, you try to get your piece in, let the guys know what you are seeing,'' he said, before adding of the French. "We know they look like they are in disarray. I have been on teams in disarray, but suddenly players look inward and they start playing for one another and that is a dangerous tool.''
France coach Marc Lievremont's fractious relationship with his players has simmered since he labeled them cowards after the Six Nations loss to Italy this year, but the chasm between the squad and coaching staff looks unbreachable after he recently made more publicms.
The French lost 19-14 to Tonga last weekend in one of the biggest upsets in the 24-year history of the World Cup, their second loss at this tournament, but that wasn't enough to deny them progression to the knockout stages. That fact alone makes them menacing opponents, according to England locks Louis Deacon and Tom Palmer.
"We don't know what sort of French team will turn up at the weekend and that makes them dangerous,'' Deacon said. "They definitely have some great players and a lot of flair in their backline. It is knockout rugby and they will not take a backward step. They will be smarting from the loss against Tonga, so this will be a huge game.''
Palmer, who plays for Stade Francais, noticed in his first season at the French club that "when things started to go wrong, then we folded fairly easily.'' But he suspects the chaos that surrounds the France squad will have a liberating effect and that an uninhibited performance is imminent.
"I suspect they will be really committed to playing,'' he said. "They will see this as being given another chance and what has happened before is irrelevant because it is a one-off knockout match. I imagine they realize it. They can say 'screw everything' behind them and 'we can go out and win and go to the semifinals of the World Cup.' That will be motivation for them.''