independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Tony Ward: Lions cannot afford to travel without Wilkinson

English points machine the perfect back-up to playmaker Sexton

When Warren Gatland names his Lions squad to travel to Australia later this morning the absence of the name Jonny Wilkinson would be a travesty.

I don't care what preconceived notions about Six Nations involvement or French-based player availability Gatland may have had, Wilkinson should be on board – irrespective of the number of players the head coach declares for the upcoming tour.

If the Lions can afford to travel minus the individual dominating European club rugby at this point in time then heaven help Robbie Deans and his Wallabies.

The Toulon out-half is, at 33, playing the most tailored and effective rugby of a long and distinguished career.

He is obsessed by rugby, by fitness and by hard graft. He is four months younger than our greatest ever player, one guaranteed to travel, but more than anything he is a Test Lion who (along with Brian O'Driscoll) has toured Australia and is on current form – as Jonny Sexton has been injured – the outstanding No 10 in northern hemisphere rugby.

I accept it can't be easy for Gatland, with the decision to run with two out-halves and the names Sexton and Owen Farrell already set in stone. The fact that Farrell's dad Andy will be travelling as part of the coaching team must also add to the dilemma for the head coach.

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But, having watched Sunday's showdown at Twickenham, and the gulf in rugby nous between Wilkinson and Farrell, how anyone could come away with any impression other than the obvious is beyond rational assessment. Farrell didn't play badly but Wilkinson ran the second semi-final from Alain Rolland's first whistle to last.

Sexton, at the top of his game, is the No 1 out-half, and will rightly travel as such, but having Wilkinson on board would prove a mighty help rather than a hindrance. I think I know the Leinster and Ireland out-half well enough to know how positive his reaction to having Wilkinson travel as companion and rival would be.

Substituting experience for pace, Wilkinson is as deserving of a call-up for this tour as he was back in 2001. If Gatland wants the watching world to acknowledge he is taking the best available squad Down Under then including Wilkinson, whether as a third out-half or utility back, to travel after the Top 14 final – due to be played the same day as the Lions front up to the Barbarians in Hong Kong on June 1 – is a no-brainer.

What you cannot give a young player is experience, what you cannot restore to an older player is natural pace, but experience enables you to cut corners to the benefit of the team. Surely O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and Wikinson provide up-to-date proof of that.

Bear in mind, we haven't even mentioned goal-kicking. I hate Wilkinson's routine but when the ball sails smack between the uprights with such consistency then hang the aesthetics. Because of his two-footed ability to drop goals he is the finest exponent in that undervalued art there has ever been and it is one area where he lords it over the otherwise imperious Sexton.

If there is any justice, Wilkinson should travel as second-choice out-half, with Farrell next in line. All three should travel, with the cost of a third specialist in the position outweighed by the learning experience for the other two.

From an Irish perspective it makes for a fascinating selection. We are coming off our worst ever Six Nations results, but, on up-to-date form, allied to such an impressive comeback by so many of the post-Christmas walking wounded, the omens are good.

Form is fickle and in one fell swoop – losing badly to Wales at the Millennium – England have gone from odds-on to dominate the Lions squad to more likely their lowest divvy-out for some considerable time. How ironic if Wilkinson was to prove one of precious few English selections.

So, on the basis of all betting being suspended on the captain, Sam Warburton will lead a squad which could include as many as a dozen but more likely nine or 10 Irish Lions.

I like what I see and hear of Warburton as a leader but it is a big ask given it will be his first tour.

I am not wearing green-tinted glasses when I say that either of the Irish O's (O'Connell or O'Driscoll) would have made for a more pragmatic choice. Against that, Gatland does have the benefit of a working captain/coach relationship already in place.

Of the rest, and starting at the back, Rob Kearney should travel as No 2 to Six Nations Player of the Tournament Leigh Halfpenny. I'm not too sure the Ireland full-back gets the appreciation he deserves on these shores. He had a reasonable Six Nations, as one of the few consistent starters in a much weakened and largely disjointed Irish team.

Had they been available throughout the Six Nations, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo would have represented Declan Kidney's first-choice combination on the wings. With both Welsh wings (George North and Alex Cuthbert) set to travel, I suspect it will be Bowe and Zebo in that order if one or both get the nod.

O'Driscoll will be in the centre with Sexton one of two, I hope three, out-halves alongside Wilkinson and Farrell.

Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs look guaranteed at scrum-half with Gatland's call as to whether he sees a second Phillips (Conor Murray) or a second Youngs (Danny Care) as the most pressing need.

Having out-performed Care at the Stoop and put in another storming performance against Morgan Parra on Saturday, Murray is well deserving of the honour should it come his way.

Cian Healy should, on form, travel as first-choice No 1 with Rory Best surely one of the best three hookers in this season's Six Nations. Mike Ross will, on technical efficiency, make a play for tighthead although the demands of hard ground and fast tracks might tell against him as a specialist No 3.

O'Connell is nailed on, with Donnacha Ryan – our most consistent player in the Six Nations despite carrying injury – set for standby. Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip should both make the back-row despite the myriad of options open to Gatland in this area.

Heaslip may have found his initial stint as Ireland captain trying but, despite unfair rumblings to the contrary, his defensive form and honesty of effort have never dipped. And with that attacking platform in place at Leinster, we saw against Biarritz the total package back in action.

Gatland's assistants cannot but have been impressed.

All told, that makes for 13 Ireland players – over a third of the squad – in the mix. Bear in mind that had Stephen Ferris been fully fit he too would have been on board.

A case too could be made for Ian Madigan in terms of impact utility but a spell in the States and Canada with a national squad minus Sexton and Ronan O'Gara will do him the world of good.

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