Jonny Wilkinson has confirmed that he will be available for the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia should there be an injury to one of the two selected fly-halves, Jonathan Sexton or Owen Farrell.
The original reason given for Wilkinson’s omission from the squad named three weeks ago was that the Toulon fly-half could not guarantee his presence on the plane carrying the 37-man party that will depart for Australia via Hong Kong next Monday.
But Wilkinson played a star role in Toulon’s 16-15 Heineken Cup triumph over Clermont Auvergne in Dublin last Saturday and said afterwards: “I’ve been asked if I’ll be an injury replacement. I’ve said 'quite happily’. But let me get to the end of the season and see if I’m not the one who needs replacing rather than the one who goes out there.
“I’m happy to give it all I’ve got. When we [Warren Gatland and I] had the chat, the situation was put to me and I completely understand that. I appreciate that everyone needs to be together and I certainly can’t guarantee that. And I can’t guarantee the state I’ll be in. The body is getting to the state, it’s the same with my body as with the kicking, I’m trying to stay in there.”
While the Lions squad, or at least the 22 not involved in this weekend’s Aviva Premiership and RaboDirect Pro12 finals, gathered outside Dublin at Carton House, Kildare for a training camp, Wilkinson remained in the city with his Toulon team-mates in preparation for Friday’s Top 14 semi-final against Toulouse in Nantes.
And he was still the topic of conversation as head coach Gatland became increasingly frustrated with questions about a call-up for the former England fly-half. “How do I say 'no’ a different way?” said Gatland after stressing that Wilkinson would only be called up in the event of an injury.
Gatland said that he would not have taken another fly-half had his squad consisted of 38 players as many thought. “It would have been another loose forward,” he said. “We’ve been through the conversation that we had with Jonny and nothing’s changed on that. If we picked up an injury on tour, then maybe there’s a conversation to be had. Jonny’s a good player, but we’ve had the conversation about him.’’
Wilkinson wanted for nothing in captaining his team to an unexpected victory at the Aviva Stadium, an unrelenting presence all over the field, hitting as hard as he has ever done in the tackle and clearing-out in rucks. He is 34 on Saturday yet is playing with the vigour and enthusiasm of a player a decade younger. Wilkinson is well aware that his selection for the Lions, 12 years after he made his first appearance for them, also in Australia, would be seen as a retrograde move.
“It’s been said that it will be a step backwards if they take me and as a proud sportsman you always disagree with that because you always believe you can add something,” said Wilkinson. “I love the idea, too, of young players. I was 21 years old in 2001 with others like Brian O’Driscoll and Iain Balshaw, and it was the experience of a lifetime, no doubt about that.
“There were older guys like Scott Quinnell and Keith Wood, so there is room for everyone. But I do like to see Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton there. Sexton had a fabulous evening [for Leinster in the Amlin Challenge Cup final win over Stade Francais] on Friday and that’s not just because he played well, it is because he is a damned good player. All credit to them to crack on into the Lions tour. If I can physically front up to being there if there is an injury, then great. If not, then they’re not losing much.”