James Lawton: Woodward's blind faith in reputation risks turning Wilkinson into sacred cow

Ponting's ominous warning should cool commotion over Pietersen - Ecclestone circus put to shame
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The Independent Online

It could well be that in a few days time Jonny Wilkinson will re-announce his status as a national hero and that his coach, Sir Clive Woodward, will once again be the man with the golden winning arm. That is always the hazard when you go against natural heroism and nerve, in Wilko's case, and a quirky flair for attacking the jugular, in Woodward's.

It could well be that in a few days time Jonny Wilkinson will re-announce his status as a national hero and that his coach, Sir Clive Woodward, will once again be the man with the golden winning arm. That is always the hazard when you go against natural heroism and nerve, in Wilko's case, and a quirky flair for attacking the jugular, in Woodward's.

However, you do have to say there is no question here that the flight to Christchurch for Saturday's opening Test has been made infinitely more arduous by Woodward's decision to eject Gavin Henson in favour of the continued and extremely sluggish rehabilitation of Wilkinson.

Henson is arguably the most thrilling new prospect in the entire rugby universe. Once he was voted the best young player in the world; now, with physical maturity, there is the promise that he might just be the most exciting. Certainly Jeremy Guscott, one of the more luminous aspects of English rugby over the years, has announced himself the leading member of his fan club. Guscott has an affecting phrase for the potential of Henson and the Lions captain, Brian O'Driscoll, working together: mouth-watering.

Now that's just too bad because the Lions have been put on bread and water. Henson is out of it because Wilkinson has to be accommodated in the centre. It poses a huge question mark against the current status of the man who won England the World Cup in Sydney eighteen months ago: has the national hero become the sacred cow? The accumulating evidence that this is so can only bring another edge of rage at Henson's exclusion in his homeland.

Welsh pride apart, though, there is cause for wider concern. The Lions concept has always been vulnerable to the threat of partisan selection but in the past this has not prevented a catalogue of heroes drawn from across the islands: when the Lions last dazzled New Zealand 34 years ago, the Dragon of Wales was the inevitable motif when Gareth Edwards and Barry John worked so brilliantly to inflict the national genius.

Stirrings of excitement over a significant revival gathered still more strength at the weekend with the mesmerising performance of Ryan Jones, whose omission from the original party was freshly exposed as an offence against natural justice.

Woodward talked about the Welsh contribution to the current tour; said they had injected a bold sense of what might be possible. Words and action have rarely been so far apart. In his move to pack off the young hero to the boonies, Woodward condemned himself as the author of weasel words. The selection now, de facto, of Wilkinson ignites an old debate. It was the one that flared in Brisbane on the run-in to the World Cup in 2003.

Wilkinson's creative impact was deeply questioned when he played so dismally against the Welsh in the quarter-final in which England were only rescued by Woodward's vigorous biting of the bullet. He sent in Mike Catt to run the game, with Wilkinson dropping back into the centre. Later, a crestfallen Welsh legend, Gerald Davies, said: "That changed the match - that was probably Woodward's best ever decision."

All, we have long been asked to believe, was redeemed by Wilko's rhino-tackling and nerveless drop-kick in the final. But was it? By what right does Wilkinson claim his place, out of position, in the match that could so easily decided the fate of this whole tour? Is it because of the sharpness of his form? Palpably not. He was rusty and indecisive in his last outing against Wellington. Is it because he has clearly emerged 100 per cent from a season bedevilled by injury? Hardly.

No, it is more likely because Wilkinson has assumed giant proportions in Woodward's mind. At present he is more a talisman, a mythic name, than a performer - and from here it is the shortest of journeys to the stall of a sacred cow.

One strength can never to be taken away from Woodward. It is his supremely obdurate self-confidence. Who else would leave the game he knows, and has lived in all his life, and move to another one at the drop of the contract from his old friend, the Southampton chairman, Rupert Lowe? Woodward won the World Cup of rugby with an ageing team in his own way, and that will always stand against his name and lift it in the annals of the game.

Now, though, the challenge in New Zealand is profoundly different. It is about melding new forces, new inspiration and new talent. In the absence of a stunning but so-far well concealed masterplan, we can only assume Woodward is feeding from an old bowl: he looks for nourishment in English forward power and the boot of Wilkinson. It has worked for him before but the guarantee looks a little frayed now. That Henson should pay the price is as ironic as it is enraging. Henson sent over the howitzer kick that plunged English rugby into reappraisal at the Millennium Stadium earlier this year. It is a little bit as though the kid who noted the king was without his clothes has been sent from the room.

Where all this leaves Wilkinson we will know soon enough. For the moment, though, it is hard not to see him as the beneficiary of a coach's preference beyond the normal terms of selection. That he will perform with every inch of application at his disposal is not in question - no more than the respect he is due for his competitive instinct and professional demeanour in all circumstances.

It is not his fault that at the moment he is plainly no more than a shadow of his old force. But then, more pertinently, nor is it Henson's. This makes him a victim at a time that should be the most challenging, and thrilling, of his competitive life. Another one is the classic rule that no man should be bigger than the team.

Ponting's ominous warning should cool commotion over Pietersen

If the cricket with which England are currently slaughtering Australia is at all significant, does it mean that the great hero Kevin Pietersen will automatically claim his place for the serious Ashes action? We gather it is possible, but not a forgone conclusion, which of course begs another question.

Why on earth are we being fed all this guff about England establishing a huge psychological edge over a team widely considered to be one of the greatest ever assembled in the history of the game? Pietersen, plainly, has a brilliant eye and a wonderful natural talent and England's captain, Michael Vaughan, used his name and the word genius in the same breath after his 91 delivered the latest English victory in one form or another of one-day cricket.

Australia's Ricky Ponting took a less euphoric view, naturally. After conceding that Pietersen had played beautifully, he added, "At the moment he looks like a good one-day player. It's hard to say whether he will be that good in the longer game because his technique will be tested much more fully then." Translation : "Then he gets the treatment, mate." As, of course, will all of the English team currently feeling so good about themselves. There's nothing wrong with that, of course - just as long we remember these are rather early days.

Ecclestone circus put to shame

Formula One chose a fine time to display to the North American continent their deeply entrenched belief that the fans should remember they are privileged to get even a glimpse of their over-heated, over-financed, and often megalomaniac circus.

Nascar racing is booming in the United States and its rival IndyCar is making a startling rally. Why this is so would shock Formula One's rights holder Bernie Ecclestone to the soles of his extremely well-heeled feet. The catalyst is a woman, Danica Patrick (pictured). She recently led the Indy 500 before finishing fourth. Imagine that, a woman behind the wheel rather than decorating the paddock.