All four home unions face a potential knock-out contest in their final group matches this weekend, and they have a common dilemma: whether to go for an experienced, steady hand at fly-half, who also offers goal-kicking reliability, or trust in the exuberance of youth and risk a lower return from kicks at goal.
England have to choose between Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood; Ireland’s option is Ronan O’Gara or Jonathan Sexton; Stephen Jones proved his fitness against Namibia on Monday night to challenge Rhys Priestland; and Scotland will debate over Dan Parks and Ruaridh Jackson.
Wilkinson, O’Gara, Jones and Parks are all in their 30s, the first three all veterans of more than one Lions campaign. The first two have accumulated more than 1,000 points in international rugby and Jones passed 900 against Namibia. Parks’s total is more modest because he has often had to watch Chris Paterson take kicks.
Wilkinson, O’Gara and Parks are all drop goal experts, even if the latter botched an attempt in the dying minutes against Argentina last Sunday, hustled on to his weaker left foot. They, along with Jones, are all controllers, unlikely to make a line-splitting break, none blessed with pace, and are generally cool under pressure. Between them, they have dropped 72 goals in Test rugby.
Flood, Sexton, Priestland and Jackson are more than playmakers; between them, they have dropped five goals in Test rugby. They all offer a threat with the ball in hand and test back rows, but they are also more volatile than their rivals. Flood was outstanding in the first half of England’s Test programme last season, running rather than kicking and bypassing the static midfield he had been handed to bring his back three into play.
As teams got wise to England’s strategy, Flood struggled to react and he ended the Six Nation in Dublin trying in vain to inspire a running game when the conditions, and the rampant Irish pack, demanded that he take a more pragmatic approach and put his side in decent positions.
Wilkinson started England’s first World Cup warm-up against Wales at Twickenham last month and played pretty much as he does for Toulon, standing flat or deep as the occasion demanded, and reacting to what was in front of him.
Against Argentina in the opening round, he was more diffident, almost unsure of his role. His best years for England came when he had a footballing brain outside him, notably Will Greenwood and Mike Catt. His strength has been execution rather than decision-making itself, but with England now preferring size in midfield there are times when he is exposed.
His chief asset has been his goal-kicking. He has the ability to detach himself from time and circumstance, blotting out everything around him as if he is on the training field with no one watching him. His accuracy has dropped this tournament, with England unhappy with the balls being used and whether they are all properly inflated.
Wilkinson struggled in the closed stadium in Dunedin. If he was not the only one, Flood had a better return, but if there is one player this tournament you would bank on nailing a kick to win a match, Wilkinson would jostle at the top of the list with O’Gara and South Africa’s Morne Steyn.
Given the cut-throat nature of England’s final pool game against Scotland, together with his selection against the Pumas, Wilkinson would seem the more likely starter, but have England been running from everywhere against Georgia and Romania for the sake of it? Will they back themselves to take the game to Scotland and create space?
The New Zealand full-back Israel Dagg and the wing Cory Jane have been feted here for their performances in the World Cup, but are they better than Ben Foden and Chris Ashton, or do they receive more opportunities and profit from an off-loading game while England’s ball-carriers tend to go to ground?
The Ireland coach Declan Kidney has come to prefer Sexton to O’Gara, using the latter to come off the bench in the final 20-30 minutes to apply the finishing touch, as he did against Australia. Sexton is not only a more dangerous runner than O’Gara, but he offers greater resistance in defence.
Ireland may have ground their way to victory over Australia, but Sexton showed for Leinster in the Heineken Cup final against Northampton last May, when they were chasing the game in the second half, the very clear threat he poses in attack, both as a runner and as a distributor.
Italy will want to draw Ireland into an arm-wrestle on Sunday, as they did Australia for 50 minutes before the Wallaby backs cut loose. Kidney’s ploy has been to start with Sexton, build a lead and then bring on O’Gara to manage it.
The prospect of Priestland starting a World Cup match for Wales at fly-half seemed remote even in July. He appeared to have been chosen in the squad to offer cover at full-back, but the coach Warren Gatland mused then that he could see Priestland playing at 10 in the tournament with James Hook at full-back.
It happened by accident. When Jones suffered a calf strain during the warm-up at Twickenham, Priestland was moved from full-back to fly-half and he was so assured that he has been the first choice in the position in the World Cup with Hook moved to full-back.
Jones is now fit again but with ground to make up. Wales may have virtually secured their place in the last eight by the time they meet Fiji on Sunday. If Samoa get nothing out of Friday’s tussle with South Africa, the Fijians would need to beat Wales by a margin of 62 points to make the last eight.
Scotland’s equation is simple: beat England and make up four points on them in the table, and hope that Argentina either lose to Georgia or beat them with a try bonus point. Their coach Andy Robinson started with Jackson against Argentina, a bold decision given both the opposition and the likely weather.
Parks came on in the second period and until the final six minutes, Scotland looked in control. They have now gone two matches without scoring a try and they will target the breakdown against England, looking to force penalties from one of the least disciplined teams in the tournament.
Scotland’s selection at fly-half is allied to the full-back position: Jackson and Paterson or Parks and Rory Lamont with goal-kicking in mind. Whatever combination is chosen, field position will be key on Saturday night.
It is the time in the tournament when one mistake can be the difference between progress and a flight home. All four home unions will have an fly-half option in reserve, but the choice for them is whether to be safe from the start, using the bench if they need to play catch-up, or go for it and use the replacement to close out a game.
It may be England v Scotland and Italy v Ireland, but it is not the Six Nations. It is like the final round of a Heineken Cup group, which should give England and Ireland a clear advantage.