England axe Wilkinson
THIS is not where Martin Johnson hoped England would be on the concluding day of the Six Nations: fielding a refurbished back division against unbeaten France in Paris, dropping his one iconic player, Jonny Wilkinson, to the bench and crossing his fingers that a shock success will add a little lustre to another disappointing season, Writes David Hands.
Nor does England manager Johnson yet know whether his captain will make it as far as the Stade de France on Saturday.
Steve Borthwick's left knee is giving serious concern and two specialists have offered opinions, one negative, the other positive. Borthwick is keeping it in a protective brace for 48 hours and he will be assessed again today, with Louis Deacon and Tom Palmer on standby.
Toby Flood has the onerous task of taking over from Wilkinson, who is dropped for only the third time in his stellar career; the first time came ahead of the 1999 World Cup quarter-final defeat to South Africa, the second when he was replaced by Danny Cipriani following England's dismal loss at Murrayfield two years ago.
"Jonny took a number of heavy knocks against Scotland but we're happy to pick Toby," Johnson said. "We need two players in every position. We're lucky to have two guys who can play so well at No 10 -- we will need them going forward to next year's World Cup.
"You can see Toby growing as an on-field general and ball player. He's not as experienced as Jonny, but he's played in a World Cup final. He is graduating into that sort of leadership role in the team as he gets more experience. He needs more game time in that position over the next 18 months, but if I thought Jonny was in decline, I wouldn't have picked him in the last seven internationals."
Wilkinson is one of seven changes (one positional) from the team that played out a drab 15-15 draw against Scotland.
There is a first cap on the wing for Chris Ashton, coming in for the injured Ugo Monye, and a 61st cap for Mike Tindall, who makes up the same midfield trio (with Flood and Riki Flutey) that functioned so well against France at Twickenham last year. Tindall replaces Mathew Tait, who drops to the bench.
Ben Foden makes his first international start at full-back and will hope for good ball from a pack strengthened by the return after injury of Simon Shaw in the second row.
Lewis Moody, having been dropped last week, returns at open-side flanker, with Joe Worsley displacing James Haskell on the blind-side.
If Borthwick withdraws, Deacon will be his replacement, although Johnson was coy about naming a replacement captain. Tindall would be one candidate, Nick Easter another.
Meanwhile, Simon Taylor, the former Scotland and Lions No 8, is to join Bath on a three-year contract after three seasons with Stade Francais. (© The Times, London)
England (v France) -- B Foden; M Cueto, M Tindall, R Flutey, C Ashton; T Flood, D Care; T Payne, D Hartley, D Cole, S Shaw, S Borthwick (captain), J Worsley, L Moody, N Easter. Reps: S Thompson, D Wilson, L Deacon, J Haskell, B Youngs, J Wilkinson, M Tait.