Much as he would love one last shot at winning the jackpot with the British and Irish Lions, Jonny Wilkinson has spent the last few weeks playing down his chances of staging an international comeback in Australia this summer, effectively admitting that a full-on ruck with the Wallabies is a young man's game. If one of those young men, Owen Farrell, passes the Wilkinson test this weekend, he can expect to be named in the tour party when it is announced in seven days' time.
The two England outside-halves go toe to toe at Twickenham on Sunday in the hotly anticipated Heineken Cup semi-final between Saracens and Toulon. For Farrell, a dozen years Wilkinson's junior, it will amount to a rite of passage.
"Do I respect him? Yeah, just a bit," the Saracens playmaker said on Monday. "I respect him massively. He set the standard; he pushed the bar right up as far as No 10s are concerned. And he's still doing it today – not just on the field but off it as well. Wilkinson is an unbelievable player who works so hard to get where he needs to be. Not only does he control a game, but he gets stuck in and smashes people as well. He puts his hand up for his team."
Farrell, raised in a sporting family with pure rugby league in its DNA, had never dreamt of playing union for a living when he watched Wilkinson knock over the drop goal that secured the 2003 world title for England. Having just turned 12, he had barely thought of earning a living at all. However, he picked up one thing: Wilkinson's dedication to practice. "The precision he brought to his training," he said. "That's what I learnt from him."
By highlighting his predecessor's defensive gifts as well as his marksmanship, Farrell reinforced the view that there are more similarities than differences between the two. Like Wilkinson, he would not claim to be the quickest thing on two legs, but he is beginning to improve his footwork in precisely the way the Toulon man did after his first year as a Test pivot. On Sunday, it will be fascinating to see who tackles harder, kicks better and has the icier nerve.
Assuming Farrell travels with the Lions, he will miss England's trip to South America in June – a shorter trip than Stuart Lancaster, the red rose coach, had initially planned. The Six Nations runners-up will play only three games: a low-key opener in Uruguay's capital Montevideo against a side drawn from the weaker rugby nations in the region, followed by full Tests against Argentina in Salta and Buenos Aires.
Initially, Lancaster wanted midweek games between the Tests – matches that would have been of value to the younger members of the party, especially those in the tight forward department. Sadly, he has been restricted to games against a Pumas team likely to be shorn of many front-line players held back for the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship.