Never too far from a debate surrounding the Lions, Jonny Wilkinson’s performance for Toulon at the weekend, in which he scored all 21 of his team’s points to lead them to a win over the Leicester Tigers, means that he has thrust himself back into contention for a touring spot.
As with every player under consideration for the Lions tour, there are pros and cons to taking Jonny Wilkinson. Considering the cons first, the most obvious, and one that Warren Gatland has publicly admitted could be an issue, is that he is likely to be in action in the Top 14 final, which clashes with the Lions’ opening fixture against the Barbarians in Hong Kong. Barring a cataclysmic loss of form, Toulon will be in the play-offs and probably the final, and Wilkinson is pretty much the first name on their teamsheet. He will certainly not be let go.
Then there is the assertion that his style of play is too limited. He is not the most attacking fly-half on offer, and at 33-years old he lacks the pace to bother defensive lines unduly. The Lions, however, are not blessed with great strength at fly-half, and there certainly aren’t many who can boast the game-changing ability or flair of a Dan Carter or Quade Cooper. In that sense, it becomes about weighing up what someone like Owen Farrell or Dan Biggar brings that Wilkinson doesn’t, and whether it is worth sacrificing Wilkinson’s experience and game management. He has, of course, been there and done it all before for the Lions in Australia in 2001. Losing that tour 2-1, he probably has some unfinished business.
There are plenty of facets of his game that would appeal to Gatland and the Lions. His performance against the Tigers was a masterclass in game management and control, and if there was ever a man you wanted at fly-half to close out a tight game, it would be him. His ability to ghost back into the pocket and knock over a drop goal is unparalleled in world rugby – as the nation of Australia will testify. There are also few players who bring Wilkinson’s level of dedication to the game. Some might call it obsessive, but anyone who is out practising his kicking at 10.30am the morning of a match (as he was on Sunday) obviously cares a great deal about his team and about winning. That is not a bad message to get across to younger members of the squad, who may get caught up in the whole Lions experience.
He is far from the complete package, but then you could argue that about any of the Lions’ options at fly-half. What he has done is throw his hat firmly into the ring for selection, and whether he goes or not he must now be considered as a genuine option. At the moment, despite being injured for large parts of the Six Nations, Johnny Sexton is still the number one choice. Wilkinson could, however, at least make an excellent touring squad member.
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