'I'll go out and do what I always do... I'll give it everything' - Wilkinson

Jonny Wilkinson remained calm in the face of criticism that he is being played out of position and under pressure
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The Independent Online

For Jonny Wilkinson the laurel leaf and the podium were replaced last night by an appearance in the dock. The charge is a serious one. It is that he has ridden into Saturday's first Test here against New Zealand solely on reputation - and that the entire British and Irish Lions tour is in danger of crumbling around him.

Though initially shaken by the depth of criticism - and some of its sources - Wilkinson, typically, reserved his defence.

"I'll go out and do what I always do for any team I play for. I'll give it everything I have, everything I have worked for," he said, defiantly.

The trial came suddenly and was sparked by widespread outrage at one of the most astounding gambles the game of rugby - and international sport - has ever seen gathered around the head of a distinctly bemused Wilkinson. For the first time in his life the man who not so along was paraded through the streets of London as a national hero, before being ravaged by injury, was being asked if he was worth his place in a team. It was a climactic moment of truth in weeks of fevered speculation. A battery of cameras flashed in the local town hall when it was put to the hero of England's World Cup victory in Sydney 18 months ago that his selection, out of position, threatens to be an act of faith - and folly - one too far by his loyal admirer and Lions coach Sir Clive Woodward.

In fact the question was put to Wilkinson, who has played only 80 minutes of international rugby - against Argentina last month - since his fabled winning drop-kick in Sydney, rather more savagely than that.

He was asked what he thought of the opinion of the former England outside-half and rugby commentator Stuart Barnes that his selection was the biggest gamble of Woodward's career and that it was not worth the risk - a pronouncement immediately compounded by the assertion of another former England star, Jeremy Guscott, that Woodward had picked a "robotic" team packed with eight of his old players who could do no better than finish fourth in the Six Nations Championship.

The assault landed on Wilkinson like a blind-side tackle. He considered the question for a moment, said "right", and smiled slightly and uncertainly into the yawning void of silence.

Then he was asked: "Do you understand why people might say that? Do you understand what they are getting at? They are saying you're not ready for the All Blacks." For Wilkinson it was a moment like many in his career - a time to shake himself down after a gut-wrenching collision.

He said: "As a player you don't think in these ways. Day in, day out you go out to do your training - and prepare for the next game. That's what I've been doing since I arrived here and I'm happy about the way it has gone. I'm not the person to ask if I should be playing.

"What I do is my work - and make myself available for selection. That's all I can do.

"I worked very hard to be here and playing for the Lions is something I've fought for while getting over injuries. Whatever people say, I have to look at it from a player's point of view.

"Saturday's game is my biggest because it's the next game - that's all. Playing at No 12 might mean I'm a little further from the All Black back row but you know there's no hiding place out there. The challenge is as big as ever and of course I believe I can do a job. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think that."

The fact is that in their different ways Wilkinson and his patron Woodward will share equal amounts of pressure in the Jade Stadium on Saturday.

Wilkinson plays in the knowledge, however firmly he attempts to deflect it, that much of the rugby world believes that the man in the Lions No 12 shirt should be Gavin Henson - the prodigious young star of Wales' Six Nations Grand Slam and the scorer of two tries for the Lions' second XV this week. But then the sacrifice of Henson is just one aspect of Woodward's extraordinary decision to turn the clock back to that night of triumph in Australia two winters ago. The consensus is overwhelming that he has built his potentially make-or-break first-Test strategy around one huge imperative. It is get Wilkinson - and his boot - into the team at all costs.

Woodward - with the 22-man Test squad containing 13 Englishmen looking on - did allow that Henson's break-out against the Southland team on Tuesday had made him question his earlier certainty about the make-up of the Test team and the seven men on the bench but then, he said, he was reassured by the cold light of day. That convinced him that he should go with the players he knows best and of whom he is most certain. Yes, that was partly to do with reputation, but also a belief that the performances of yesterday can be produced this weekend.

As Guscott said, Wilkinson's selection will colour the whole England - sorry, Lions - approach to beating an All Black team who are oozing confidence that they have indeed returned to their old place at the top of world rugby.

The prospect of a midfield explosion based on the chemistry of captain Brian O'Driscoll and the potential for mayhem established by Henson, became that much more remote when Woodward announced his squad yesterday. The Lions, suggested Guscott, are a suddenly open book. They will kick for the corners, hope that the old English guard which supplies five members of the pack - to the exclusion of the soaring Ryan Jones - will force penalties deep in All Black territory, and that the kicking of Wilkinson will be decisive.

It is not a formula conceived in the rugby heavens, maybe, but Woodward has always operated on one basic article of faith. It is that victory extinguishes all arguments.

Now it has become utterly clear that he sees Wilkinson as his best chance of ending his rugby coaching career on a triumphant note - before taking up office at Southampton Football Club - a huge and compelling question attaches itself to a man who has never be afraid to invest in his instincts, which have been seen by others as eccentric.

The question asks simply this: did he win his knighthood, and the World Cup, with one formidable trick - faith in an ageing but powerful pack and the talismanic presence and kicking accuracy of Wilkinson - or was it through the force of his belief that in any circumstances he could find a way to win?

Those dismayed by some of his decisions here are obliged to remember all the doubts about England - and Wilkinson - when they flew down to Sydney for their World Cup semi-final and final against France and Australia. Then many thought Woodward's pack was too old and his talisman too fragile after barely surviving the quarter-final against, ironically enough, Wales. They were the same questions that fuelled last night's trial of Jonny Wilkinson. When that was remembered, it meant that no self-respecting jury would stay out for a moment less than the one that brings the final whistle on Saturday.

1,000 minutes of rugby: Wilkinson since the World Cup

* FOR NEWCASTLE

28 Dec 03 v Northampton (57mins, 3 pens)

5 Sept 04 v Worcester (80min, 3 cons, 3 pens)

11 Sept 04 v Bath

(80min, 2 cons, 1 pen, 2 DGs)

19 Sept 04 v Harlequins

(80min, 1 con, 5 pens)

25 Sept 04 v Gloucester

(80min, 4 pens)

2 Oct 04 v Leicester

(80min, 1 con, 1 pen)

10 Oct 04 v Wasps

(80min, 3 cons, 1 pen)

17 Oct 04 v Saracens

(80min, 2 cons, 1 pen, 1 DG)

27 Dec 04 v Leeds

(61min, 3 pens, 1 DG)

2 Jan 05 v Sale

(80min, 3 cons, 3 pens, 1 try)

8 Jan 05 v Perpignan

(69min, 4 pens)

15 April 05 v Northampton

(46min, 1 con, 3 pen)

30 April 05 v London Irish

(80min, 6 pens)

8 May 05 v Gloucester

(80min, 1 con 3 pens)

* FOR THE LIONS

23 May 05 v Argentina

(80min, 1 con, 6 pens)

15 June 05 v Wellington

(80min, 2 cons, 3 pens)

* TOTAL

1,193 minutes;

20 conversions;

50 penalties; 4 drop goals.

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