Warren Gatland stands by Lions squad selection as clamour for Jonny Wilkinson grows


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The Independent Online

Outside-halves? They’re more trouble than they’re worth, even when the players involved are as accomplished, in their very different ways, as Jonny Wilkinson and Quade Cooper.

Issues at No 10 dominated the agenda on opposite sides of the world yesterday as the clamour surrounding the forthcoming British and Irish Lions series in Australia grew ever louder, leaving the two head coaches, Warren Gatland and Robbie Deans, in a state of advanced exasperation.

Gatland, who leaves these shores with his Wilkinson-less Lions early next week, was unusually curt in his response to further questions about the exiled Englishman’s place, or lack of it, in the grand scheme of things. “Jonny’s a good player, but we’ve had the conversation about him,” said the former All Black hooker, who selected just two outside-halves – Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell – for the trek around Wallaby country and has been explaining himself ever since.

Had Wilkinson’s contribution to Toulon’s triumph in Saturday night’s Heineken Cup final prompted second thoughts? “Nothing’s changed,” came the reply.

The New Zealander conceded that there might be another “conversation” if and when injuries disrupt the tour party, but he will not call for Wilkinson otherwise. The celebrated goalkicker’s continuing club commitments, allied to growing fitness problems that may soon demand surgical intervention, meant he could not be included in the original squad, and anyway, no one watching the two European finals over the weekend was left in any doubt as to Sexton’s superiority as an attacking playmaker.

Wilkinson effectively made Gatland’s point for him following the Heineken Cup triumph in Dublin. “When I had my chat with Warren, the situation was put to me and I completely understood it,” he said. “I  appreciated that everyone needed to be together and I couldn’t guarantee that. I couldn’t guarantee the state I’d be in, either. I lacked a couple of things even today: my body is getting to the point where I just go out, give it everything and see what happens.

“As far as the Lions tour is concerned, a line has been drawn under it. It will be ‘injury only’. I’ve been asked if I’ll be a replacement and 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.”

Meanwhile, Deans was on the receiving end of some very sharp words from the Queensland Reds coach, Ewen McKenzie, widely tipped as the next in line for the Wallaby job. To put it mildly, McKenzie did not agree with the decision to leave the exhilaratingly gifted but defensively suspect Cooper out of an initial 25-man Australia training squad, although many expect the midfielder to be one of six players added over the next three weeks.

England, who tour Argentina next month, have lost two Saracens players, the full-back Alex Goode and the centre Joel Tomkins, to injury. The  uncapped Northampton midfielders Luther Burrell and Stephen Myler will travel in their places.