Rugby: Roger that Wilko and Australia

By James Lawton

Jonny Wilkinson may yet be kicking for the Lions. Photo / AP
Jonny Wilkinson may yet be kicking for the Lions. Photo / AP

Take Jonny Wilkinson with the Lions? Do it when he is 33, 34 next month? Turn back the clock, deliver a crushing blow to his anointed successor, the potentially iconic Owen Farrell? But what else could you possibly do?

The Lions coach, Warren Gatland, scarcely has a choice. Not if he wants to live in the reality of the performances of the hour and the day rather than the tyranny of time Wilkinson so brilliantly rejected at Twickenham yesterday.

We see many resurrections in sport. We see much resistance to the dying of the light. But how many boxing rings and test grounds and racetracks and football fields do we have to revisit to see again something quite as perfect as the show Wilkinson put on at Twickenham?

Sadly, the old place at which Wilkinson was appearing for the 46th time had far too many empty spaces on the terraces to be the perfect shrine for one of the nation's greatest sportsmen.

Wilkinson did so much more than carry Toulon to the final of the Heineken Cup with all 24 points in the victory over Saracens.

He was a source of unending confidence. Astonishingly, his kicking, for seven penalties and an eviscerating dropped goal late in the game, had rarely produced such a welling of authority as we saw on what many had billed as the last of his headquarters hurrahs.

His hands were wonders of adhesion. His short, cutting breaks across the gain line demanded Saracens' unbroken attention. His tactical kicking was acute. More than anything, he was a point of certainty around which men such as the superbly weathered Argentina lock Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the French earth-mover Mathieu Bastareaud and another impressively evolved veteran, Australian Matt Giteau, could apply frequently withering power.

When he finally broke Saracens, as he had done Leicester in the quarter-final, the resulting cameo was a picture not just of sport but life. Farrell, who has come so far so quickly, had strained every fibre to smother the drop goal attempt but in his moment of failure, when he lay on the ground wrapped around the man under whose shadow he had grown, his head bowed against his chest, he had been exposed to some of the mysteries that time and experience have not yet permitted him to master and when this realisation came he felt a comradely pat. It was from Wilkinson and it said so many things apart from the fact that sometimes you learn far more from certain defeats than any number of facile victories.

It said that Wilko also knew the agonies that accompany the rites of passage. Maybe he remembered the doubts he carried into the great triumph of his career, the World Cup final of 2003 in Sydney.

Farrell was pulled down by an accumulation of doubt. He has still much to learn and to absorb.

Inevitably, Wilkinson was declared man of the match but it seemed a curiously slender distinction. He was also a man of strange times in sport, when celebrity invades so much half-formed achievement, and what you wanted to give him was the kind of recognition beyond the glories of one achievement. It was the salute that goes to those who have consistently demanded the best of themselves.


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