Flood eyes leading role in England revival
Toby Flood, you might think, relishes every single moment centre-stage.
It isn't just his occupation: England fly-half, he is almost certain to start in that most scrutinised and pivotal position in the forthcoming autumn internationals. It's his genealogy: both grandfathers noted film and television actors, maternal grandmother the same.
It's even spelled out on his passport. Flood's middle names are Gerald - after the paternal grandfather who starred in Dr Who, Steptoe and Son, and Patton - and Albert Lieven, his mother's father, who played the villainous Flashman's father in 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' and a whole range of Nazis in a number of war-time pot-boilers.
It's as if he were born for the spotlight. Except, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Flood is the most experienced player in the England squad with 50 caps. Picture: Getty
"I've always disliked it," he says. "I've always hated the idea of having to go there and do things and always be on show.
"You're sometimes jealous of the guys like Chris Robshaw who can just go out there and keep their head down, work incredibly hard and come out knowing they've ticked all the boxes. You are sometimes jealous of that, because you shoulder so much responsibility."
By accident or design, Flood's performances over the next month of Saturdays will play a huge part in determining whether England's story has a happier ending than it often does at this time of year.
Forget winters of discontent. Autumn, for a generation of England stars, has been a season of misses and mellow fruitlessness.
In the nine years since the World Cup win of 2003, they have recorded only four wins at home over the old Tri-Nations teams. All three of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand will be striding onto the Twickenham stage again this month, with Fiji to open up this Saturday. The plot is due a change.
"This is [the equivalent of] coming into the quarter-finals of a World Cup and going all the way through to the final. You have to beat these sides. This has to be us setting down a mark," he insisted.
"Twickenham used to be a fortress - not many teams came here and won. That's shifted.
"You understand the difficulty of it, but you want a space that is ours, where it is very, very difficult for anyone to come here and beat us.
Those autumn struggles - and occasional rare triumphs - have defined Flood's own career. He made his international debut as a coltish 21-year-old in dismal defeat by Argentina six years ago. His finest display for his country, when he landed a record-breaking 25 points against Australia, came during the Wallabies' last visit to Twickenham two years ago.
Remarkably, at 27 years old, he is now the squad's most experienced player, his 50 caps setting him apart in coach Stuart Lancaster's young regime.
He is not necessarily the most settled. Flood has seldom been allowed to feel comfortable in the number 10 jersey. Of those 50 caps only 32 have been starts, the varied threats of injury, form and rivals meaning he has hokey-cokeyed with the best of them.
"It can be tough," he admits, thinking back to the period before the last World Cup when a 12-match run was ended by the sudden recall of his old mentor Jonny Wilkinson. "We had had success as a side - we went all the way to a Grand Slam game. It was the first time we had finished top of the Six Nations for years. It can be frustrating to deal with.
"The settled thing is an interesting point. Stu has made it an important point that no-one ever feels settled. Gone are the days two weeks out saying 'You're in the squad, this is how it's going to be, this is the line-up'.
"There's none of that now. Chris [Robshaw] doesn't find out that he's captain until the week before the first match. Stu has always made it as competitive, and as fearful for your place, as he can. There is that edge in training."
Is that always a good thing? Isn't a player worried about his place less likely to take risks, more likely to play safety-first rugby?
Flood nods. "That's the balance of what he's doing. He's making you fear for your spot, but when you pull the shirt on he wants you to go out there and play without fear. It's a clever balance."
Wilkinson might have departed for the warm sunshine and welcome of southern France, but the pretenders to his throne keep on queuing. Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell shared fly-half duties with success during the Six Nations; George Ford is pushing Flood hard at his club Leicester, while Gloucester's tyro Freddie Burns will train with England this week, to the delight of many in the west and beyond.
Does Flood find himself watching those rivals intently, whether in camp with England or on television highlights?
"No. I've never done that, not with Jonny or Charlie or anything. 'How many had he kicked? What's his passing been like?' Never.
"I'll do it for opposition 10s, so I know what I can attack on the pitch. But I don't ever want to do that with team-mates. You get in the horrible mind-set of chasing them. You have to manage your expectations of where you want to go - like Sean Fitzpatrick said, 'be the best you can be'."
Can that competition not act as a perfect sporting stimulus?
"I never want it to become a game of poker. I never want to see his hand and then reveal mine. The stimulus of competition is more through the training. We had a talk from Will Greenwood, and in the team's buddy-system, he was paired up with Mike Catt even when they were vying for the same spot, and it worked for them," explained Flood.
"It is hard, because it's relentless. But you have to accept it's natural. The closer you become to somebody, the more you want to be better than them. That's the beauty of it.
"Having an appreciation of how they're playing is a big difference to worrying about it. Understand it's your game that you control. I can't manage how Fordy's going to play."
Flood has now played through four different England regimes in his six years - Andy Robinson's, Brian Ashton's, Martin Johnson's and now Lancaster's, if we ignore Rob Andrew's two-match interregnum.
Does it make him, if not more cynical, a little more cautious about the brave new world that Lancaster is explicitly trying to create?
"I'm always cynical. No, I think you're less... you become a bit more single-minded. You have a way you want to prepare for a game, so when a new guy comes in you hold that close to your chest for the first couple of weeks.
"You study what they're trying to do, and over time your respect is created by how the team plays. Having been rolled through four managers does make you conscious of, how long is this guy going to be here, do we adhere to everything he wants? Because you never know.
"I've always tried to be as selfless as possible. If the team scores four or five tries and I'm not in any of them, then fantastic. When you're in the team environment in my position, you're trying to make everyone else look as fantastic as possible.
"The selfishness for me comes in when, like today, you train as a team and then I stay out and want to kick and go into my own space, my own environment. I work on my own little bits.
"That's my selfish part. I've got kicking to do, I've got Achilles extensions to do, I've got movement to do. That's when I can detach myself from the squad."
Of the 10 autumn internationals Flood has played, he has won just three. Only one of those victories, the thumping of Australia, came against a top-level side. It is not a statistic he will worry about as he walks out at Twickenham this Saturday.
"What you do as a player is say, this is my level. I sit there. I don't get up when I play well, I don't get down when I play badly.
"You're flat-lining. If you become too emotionally attached to what some people are saying, it just destroys you. It can tear you apart. So one thing I've learned is to take yourself away from it. Totally be honest with yourself and your peers and see how that drives you forward."
Albert Lieven once starred in a film called 'Loser Takes All'. Fifty six years later his grandson may prefer to dip into his grandmother's canon instead over the next four weekends. 'London Belongs To Me'? That would do rather nicely.