Wilkinson handed Lions boost but veteran faces stiff challenge down under

by RUGBY.com.au staff

Jonny Wilkinson has been given fresh hope about his chances of capping a glittering Test career with a third and final Lions tour next summer, but he will have to force his way past two younger English No 10s to earn a squad place.

The World Cup-winning fly half retired from international rugby with England at the end of last year, but at the age of 33 he has been in vintage form for his French club, Toulon, this season.

Having revealed that he is driven by a desire to return to Australia with the Lions, the initial response was far from promising.

When head coach Warren Gatland was asked last month if he had spoken to Wilkinson, his reply was a curt, decisive 'no'.

However, when the Kiwi revealed his coaching line-up in Edinburgh, one of his assistants provided the iconic English stand off with some welcome encouragement to believe that the door is open to him.

Rob Howley formed a Test half-back partnership with Wilkinson on the last Lions tour of Australia in 2001 and he said: 'He (Wilkinson) is playing in a good team at Toulon, who are going pretty well in the Heineken Cup, and Warren has said that all players who are in contention will be looked at.

'I'm sure Toulon will be in the quarter-finals and they are the games you need to be playing – quarter-finals and semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, if you're not playing international rugby.

'We have to see the players under pressure in those sort of situations.'

The serious Achilles injury which ended Wales No 10 Rhys Priestland's season has created an extra Lions fly half vacancy, as the Scarlets playmaker surely would have featured in the squad.

In theory, Wilkinson should come into the equation given his prodigious experience with England, and with the Lions in 2001 and 2005, along with his enduring goal-kicking class and defensive clout.

Furthermore, he is revered and feared in equal measure in Australia, to this day.

Yet, he has two compatriots ahead of him at present in the tussle to claim squad places along with the prime Irish candidate, Jonny Sexton.

Howley said: 'I enjoyed Sexton's performances during the autumn series, and the likes of Owen (Farrell) and Toby (Flood). They are all different styles of 10 and there will be a lot of analysis on those players in the next three or four months.

'It's competition, and that's what brings the best out of them. None of them have been on a Lions tour, so it will be interesting to watch them under the microscope during a Six Nations, in a Lions year. Particularly as a No 10, a key ingredient in performances is how they react under pressure.'

Meanwhile, Gatland says the management decision to leave Shaun Edwards from his coaching team emulated Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson's management.

England's Andy Farrell will be the Lions' defence coach in Australia in 2013 rather than the Wales assistant.

'It was an agonising decision - very tough,' Gatland told BBC Radio Wales.

'But you look at someone like Alex Ferguson. He has always been prepared to keep things fresh and make changes.'