Nick Cain: Jonny for the Lions? His form says Yes

Jonny WilkinsonJonny Wilkinson’s statement this week that  there’s no way he could say no to an invitation to be part of the 2013 Lions touring party has sparked a heated debate. And while there is no straight dividing line between the pros and the cons, you get a strong vibe that those who favour the 2003 world champion fly-half going on a third Lions tour are mainly English fans who still worship at the altar of ‘Saint Jonny’, while those against him taking on the Wallabies are mainly Celts who believe that England’s hero has had his day and that there are better, younger No.10 options than the Toulon-based veteran.
Let me declare at the outset that in the great fly-half debate this column is partial: I am an admirer of Wilkinson, not only as the greatest tackling and goal-kicking fly-half I’ve seen at Test level, but also as a player whose attacking game, in terms of passing and tactical kicking, is infinitely better than his detractors acknowledge. Nevertheless, any balanced appraisal accepts that Dan Carter is almost as accomplished as Wilkinson as a kicker and defender, and that the All Black has a skill set in attack which is superior to Wilkinson’s because of his extra yard of pace and exceptional ability as a play-maker, with an almost freakish ability to sniff out gaps and shrug off tackles, as well as run-in tries.
The Englishman and the New Zealander have a couple of other shared strengths. They are incredibly strong pound-for-pound, regularly coming out on top in collisions with much bigger men, and they have superb big match temperaments. Like great golfers, both are able to shelve setbacks to concentrate on the business in hand.
As Warren Gatland surveys the fly-half landscape early this season he does not have the luxury of a long list of candidates, and that is why he has already stated that he considers Wilkinson to be a candidate at “only 33”, which the Lions head coach said he doesn’t consider to be old.
What is certain is that apart from the tactical head on his shoulders, including a consumate ability to run a territorial game and kick pressure drop-goals and penalties, there is nothing old about the way Wilkinson is playing. He has been given a new lease of rugby life in the south of France, and appears to relish the responsibilities he shoulders as Toulon’s match-winning talisman.
No-one is suggesting that, having retired from international duty with England, Wilkinson should be pencilled in as the Lions Test fly-half, because on form over the last three years the foremost candidate is Jonathan Sexton. However, to ignore Wilkinson’s credentials to be in the 2013 tour party flies in the face of current form, which, apart from being a team player (which he clearly is), should be the main selection criteria.
Sexton has been pivotal to Leinster’s Heineken Cup treble, confirming him as a player who relishes the big occasion and has the full array of fly-half skills, including offering a running threat. The only conundrum with the tall Irishman is how Joe Schmidt gets so more out of him for Leinster than Declan Kidney has so far managed with Ireland.
In 32 Tests Sexton has scored 236 points, including one try, and has finished in a losing Ireland side more times than in a winning one – whereas England won 67 of the 91 Tests Wilkinson played, and his Test total of 1,246 points is second only to Dan Carter’s record, which stands at 1,342 after yesterday’s match against South Africa.
After Sexton the Lions fly-half larder looks a little thin. There is no doubting Rhys Priestland’s ability, but since the Wales Grand Slam he has not been a model of consistency, and even during that Six Nations triumph he was supplanted as first-choice goal-kicker by Leigh Halfpenny. The other Welshman in the mix is James Hook, who has at last got some game time in his preferred No.10 shirt at Perpignan – but outside playing for Wales, where he is second at fly-half to Priestland, he is struggling for exposure because Perpignan are in the Amlin Cup and in the lower half of the Top 14.
The other international candidates are Toby Flood and Owen Farrell of England, and Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw. Flood has hardly set the stage alight since Wilkinson’s departure to Toulon gave him first rights to the Red Rose No.10 jersey, and last season he lost out to the hard-tackling youngster Farrell for the entire Six Nations following injury. However, neither player offers an individual attacking threat nor they have the look of manufactured rather than natural fly-halves.
The tricky Laidlaw does pose a threat at the gain-line, but whether after only one season of switching from scrum-half to No.10 he has the necessary tactical radar, or the defensive credentials, to be a Lions fly-half is open to question. It will be interesting to see Laidlaw’s progress, because his versatility is a bonus. Elsewhere in the fly-half world, young tyros like George Ford, Ferddie Burns and Dan Biggar have a quantum leap to make from club to country to attract Gatland’s attention.
It is this unfinished patchwork quilt of No.10s who are either works in progress, or not quite there, that makes Wilkinson such a strong Lions candidate – and the idea that he is a washed-up old croc topping up his pension at Toulon is balderdash. Last season he steered the French club to their first French Championship title shot in 20 years, with Toulouse edging home in the final after having to endure a try-line siege.
This season Toulon have set out their stall in impressive fashion, with Wilkinson again pulling the strings like a master puppeteer behind a huge, gnarled pack. On current form, if the plane left for Australia tomorrow, Wilkinson would fully merit a seat on it.

Leave a Comment