Flood: I felt guilty by association with what went on at the World Cup and just wanted to walk away from the game
22:09 GMT, 3 November 2012
Had it not been for the realisation
after weeks of soul-searching that he was still in love with rugby, Toby
Flood would not be running out on Saturday for England to face Fiji at
Twickenham, but watching the game on TV as a prematurely retired player.
Flood, with 50 caps to his name, may
be the most experienced man in Stuart Lancaster's new-look England
set-up, but so disillusioned was the Leicester and England stand-off by
events both on and off the field during last autumn's Rugby World Cup
that he admits he nearly walked away from the game.
'The World Cup made me question
whether it was all worth it,' said the man who will command the pivotal
position in England's four autumn Tests, beginning with Fiji on Saturday.
Dejected: Toby Flood reacts to defeat in the 2011 Rugby World Cup
'It made me ask myself if it was something I really wanted to do. I was very disillusioned. I wasn't enjoying my rugby, my form dipped and, looking back, it was pretty scary. All I knew was that I couldn't go through what I experienced during and after the World Cup again. I could easily have walked away from the game.'
The fact that he did not was down to the advice of those closest to him and as a result of watching the likes of Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell play for England in the No 10 jersey during this year's Six Nations tournament.
'I sat down and spoke to a great deal of friends and peers about how I felt,' said 27-year-old Flood.
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'I also spoke with my family and they all told me I should carry on. But what proved to be the catalyst was watching others play in the Six Nations in place of me.
'I'd just come back from poor form and then injury and I didn't really get a look-in during the Six Nations. My passion for the game had deserted me and I was trying to rediscover the love. For the first time since before the World Cup I felt that knot in my stomach watching the Six Nations.
'I wasn't jealous of any individuals. But I realised I missed that moment of elation, five minutes after the game is won, when you sit in the dressing room, look across at a team- mate and smile. Any player who has retired will tell you. That's what you miss more than any other part of the game.'
Flood 's World Cup depression was understandable. On the field England fell in the quarterfinals to France after an appalling first-half display, while off the field the squad became embroiled in a series of incidents that cast doubt on their discipline and maturity and led, ultimately, to the resignation of manager Martin Johnson and a cull of senior players under Lancaster's new regime this year.
'Having played in the 2007 World Cup final and having loved the experience so much, I knew how badly we blew it last year,' said Flood.
'We had a path to the final via France in the quarter-finals and Wales in the semis – teams we had beaten in the Six Nations and summer World Cup warm-up games,' said Flood. 'But we didn't attack the opportunity with anywhere near enough vigour.
'And, of course, off the field it didn't exactly go to plan either. On a number of occasions there were situations that were poor from the individuals concerned. I'm fully aware of what we did.'
Flood is as far removed from the testosterone-fuelled goldfish bowl of professional rugby as can be imagined.
Back in business: Toby Flood in training with England ahead of the test against Fiji
He does not fall out of taxis in the small hours nor tread the red carpet at film premieres.
He does not chase publicity and is happiest simply chewing the fat with members of the front five from his club, Leicester, over a coffee, or gardening, or, as he did last week, visiting Paris with his girlfriend, Sally, to take in some of that city's cultural attractions.
'When I first picked up a rugby ball and ran with it, I did it for the enjoyment of the game,' he said. 'Nothing's really changed. When I am playing, I accept that I am in the full glare of the rugby-following public, the game in general and the media. But I don't do this to be a celebrity or to be on the front pages of the papers. I don't want to be recognised. I just want to play rugby to the best of my ability and lead my own life away from the job.
'That's why I enjoy the company of the Leicester props and locks so much. It may look strange, a “pretty boy” back hanging out with the engine room, but they're honest men in the way they approach their job and their lives. As a rugby player, I can't do something like go skiing even if I wanted to. So instead I find things to do to escape from the goldfish bowl of professional rugby. That's why I enjoy gardening or fishing and walking my black Labrador. '
Two of a kind: Toby Flood (right) and the man he replaced as England fly-half, Jonny Wilkinson
Nowhere was the attention greater, or less welcome, than at the World Cup. Flood said: 'I didn't want the full glare of publicity or to be made to feel guilty by association with what went on in New Zealand. The world I found myself in, with seemingly the eyes of everyone on us, was one I don't want any part of.'
Some of his England colleagues have had to change their ways following the fall-out from the World Cup.
Not so Flood, which, when you realise who mentored him during his embryonic rugby days up in Newcastle, is perhaps unsurprising.
'I grew up watching and then being taught how to play rugby by Jonny,' said Flood, feeling – rightly – no need to add the surname of Wilkinson.
'I watched how he went about his business, both on and off the field. He understood the ways of the modern rugby player long before most others and it rubbed off on me.
'When I got back last year from the World Cup, I asked myself whether the squad, at any time, understood how difficult it could be for us, or realised just how much scrutiny we would be under.
'The answer is clear, which is why so many aspects of the World Cup left me analysing my own behaviour on and off the field and my desire.'
Twelve months on and so much is different. England are now under Lancaster's guidance, they finished a creditable second place in the Six Nations with a much-changed and vastly younger team, and then returned from South Africa with two narrow defeats and a draw.
And Flood is back in the No 10 jersey, although with the likes of Farrell, Freddie Burns and even George Ford at Leicester seemingly snapping at his heels, his position still seems far from secure.
'That goes with the territory,' he said. 'The irony isn't lost on me that for a man who doesn't like the spotlight I play at 10. Sometimes I wish I played at six. Not that it's easier, but what you do, good and bad, doesn't get noticed by 90 per cent of the people.
'I like the challenge and I don't spend a moment worrying about others playing better than me. After a while it's not about a good game here and there, it's about narrowing the gap between good and bad games to the point where you reach a consistent level at Test match standard.
Rivals: Charlie Hodgson (front) and Owen Farrell are among several fly-halfs challenging Toby Flood
'I'm not saying it doesn't hurt if you get dropped, as I was for Jonny in the World Cup, but Test match rugby today is not just about the 15 who start, nor even the 22 who run out for the game, but the 30-odd in the squad, because at any given moment you will be required to take your chance. If it all ended today, I'd be very happy with what I've achieved. I'm more concerned by my evolution as a person than as a rugby player.'
Which is why Flood will be in the City of London on his day off this week, doing work experience with an insurance broker, and why last week he was coaching at a school in Wimbledon.
'I hope I have another five or six years in rugby,' he said. 'I'll take my coaching badges but I just want to see what else is out there. There's a lot of life to live, isn't there'
And with that, the reluctant star of English rugby headed off to catch his train to Paris where, for now at least, he can enjoy his off-field anonymity before the maelstrom of Test match rugby once again engulfs him.