Following a shock loss to Castres in the Top 14 final on Saturday night, the iridescent spotlight that has chased Jonny Wilkinson since the infancy of his England career will now re-focus and inten
Following a shock loss to Castres in the Top 14 final on Saturday night, the iridescent spotlight that has chased Jonny Wilkinson since the infancy of his England career will now re-focus and intensify as speculation over his involvement on yet another Lions tour crawls inevitably onto the horizon like a Fergie-time equaliser.
Make no bones about it—Wilkinson is still a class act. He has not quite hit the heady heights of 2001-2003, where he not only became the ice cold kicking machine that has characterized his career, but was also the best attacking fly-half in world rugby, effectively re-defining the fly half position for the professional era.
Under the tutelage of sage like backs coach Brian Ashton, Wilkinson orchestrated the most exciting and dangerous England backline in recent times, with Will Greenwood, Jason Robinson, Iain Balshaw, James Simpson-Daniel and Ben Cohen forming a formidable, creative unit. More importantly, he still knows how to win. His performance in this season’s Heineken Cup final is testament to his talents, pulling Toulon back into contention and to an outstanding come from behind victory.
Wilkinson has become something of a cult legend in Toulon. A genuine Roy of the Rovers and all round nice-guy, his quiet persona and diligence has seen the fans come to love the serious Englishmen with the dubious accent. He would be the consummate tourist for the Lions, providing experience and assistance to the relatively green Farrell and Sexton. Plus he scares the bejesus out of the Aussies.
Viewed by most as an option off the bench, primarily to close out the tests in the last 10 or if necessary perform the same heroics that he mustered against Clermont in the Heineken, the argument for Wilkinson’s inclusion makes sense.
However, times have changed. The game has moved on and Wilkinson has not quite moved with it, or at any rate, managed to stay ahead. Dan Carter has instead come to redefine what it means to play fly-half in the modern era, mixing aggressive defence with tactical nous, attacking flair with ice cool goal-kicking, all whilst simultaneously getting the best out of the players around him.
The mixed form and, often petulant, attitude of Owen Farrell coupled with the slight distrust of Jonny Sexton’s top class pedigree (something which has dogged his entire career) are what has and will continue to lead to calls for Wilkinson’s belated inclusion.
Wilkinson’s own game is a mixed bag these days—his goal-kicking is as consistent as ever. He has greatly improved his tactical kicking, getting more length to combat the howitzer like boots that every full-back and his dog seem to have these days.
Yet there are still nagging questions. He sits too deep off the gainline, often enjoying pulling passes behind the Herculean Toulon forwards to the likes of Matt Giteau who then look for space in the wide channels. This is not how the Lions will want to play. Warren Gatland, as exhibited on Saturday, has picked a massive squad; a cornucopia of Corinthians. They will look to use these Titans (Jamie Roberts, Manu Tuilagi, George North, Sean O’Brien) to crash into the Australian midfield, likely to contain the relatively lightweight James O’Connor and Christian Lealiifano, gaining easy front foot ball and allowing the Lions powerful forward pack to build up ahead of steam around the corner.
Simple but effective.
Whether this is a game-plan that suits Wilkinson’s talents is a moot point. It is designed for a fly-half who is happy to play an instrumental role. It was not designed with a superstar 10 in mind. With Gatland’s Wales, both Rhys Priestland and Dan Biggar know their role—bring the key players into the game. Give the North’s, Roberts’ and Davies’ the ball with time and space and watch them go. Whilst Wilkinson is no great ego, one can see the strain playing the game puts him under.
He is always trying to make something happen, every time he touches the ball, to take the pressure of responsibility upon his broad shoulders. The Lions will want to use their 9 to challenge the genius of Australia’s Will Genia and with the likes of O’Driscoll in mid-field the 10 may become more of a manager than a game-breaker.
I do not think this is a role Wilkinson is cut out for—he has always been the centre attention. The great weight of responsibility always seems present on his face, the anxiety spilling through with every carefully managed syllable. The Lions will not win this series by kicking penalties. They have to and indeed will want to play some rugby.
It would be better for Jonny, and for the Lions, if he stayed on the Riviera. Sometimes the secret to being a really great player is just to give someone else the ball.