Jones to battle Wilkinson for pride of place

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The Independent Online

Stephen Jones arrived in New Zealand yesterday without a bodyguard in sight - just one of the factors separating him from his great rival for a Lions Test berth, Jonny Wilkinson. Four days ago, the Welsh outside-half guided his French club, Clermont Auvergne, to a place in next season's Heineken Cup by playing a central role in their victory in an all-or-nothing league match with Agen.

Stephen Jones arrived in New Zealand yesterday without a bodyguard in sight - just one of the factors separating him from his great rival for a Lions Test berth, Jonny Wilkinson. Four days ago, the Welsh outside-half guided his French club, Clermont Auvergne, to a place in next season's Heineken Cup by playing a central role in their victory in an all-or-nothing league match with Agen.

Over the next four days, he will shake off the effects of a 24-hour flight before locking horns with Wilkinson in a selectorial battle royal - a challenge likely to prove significantly tougher than anything he has just experienced in Tricolore country.

Six weeks or so ago, when Sir Clive Woodward named an initial 44-man squad for this trip - a squad in which the injured Wilkinson was conspicuous by his absence - Jones was the odds-on favourite to play No 10 against the All Blacks. He had performed quite beautifully throughout the Six Nations Championship, which resulted in a first Welsh Grand Slam in more than a quarter of a century. Indeed, his displays prompted Gareth Jenkins, his old mentor at Llanelli and one of Woodward's back-room colleagues here, to declare: "I have no doubt that, as the tour progresses, Stephen will emerge as one of the dominant characters. He is absolutely the right man to carry the heavy load, to cope with the unique demands of a series in New Zealand."

That was then. Jones may well play an influential hand between now and mid-July, when the result of the most eagerly awaited Test rubber in years will finally be cast in stone, but Wilkinson's return to full fitness and something approaching optimum form means that suddenly, all bets are off. How will Woodward handle Wilkinson from here on in? Will he play him against Taranaki in New Plymouth next Wednesday and run Jones in the big match with the New Zealand Maori the following weekend, or will he pick his World Cup-winning stand-off for that huge game in Hamilton in the hope the Golden One will remove the last vestiges of doubt over his readiness to take on the All Blacks? If Jones does not face the Maori, when will he make his pitch for the Test jersey? And in the midst of all this, when might Charlie Hodgson get a chance?

Jones was characteristically relaxed about the rigours ahead when he pitched up in the team hotel. "It's not just the outside-halves," he said. "Everybody in the squad has the same mindset with regards to winning a place in the Test team. The competition is incredible wherever you look, and I'm delighted to be involved. I'm well aware of the Welsh tradition in producing No 10s for the Lions - Phil Bennett was a Llanelli player before me and I hold him in the highest regard - so it would mean everything to pull on the Test shirt.

"But Jonny is a world-class player, a great professional, and I'm not surprised that he recovered from his injuries in time to make it out here. And it's not simply between the two of us, is it? Charlie and Ronan O'Gara also have their ambitions. All I know is that whoever wins selection will have the backing of the others, 100 per cent. We all have the same aim, to be part of a successful Lions team."

Having finished his first French campaign as one of the heaviest scorers in the country and helped transform Clermont Auvergne, formerly known as Montferrand, from a desperate early-season shambles - nine defeats in 13 matches - to one capable of winning 13 of their last 16, he had every right to be in good humour. "They play a different style of rugby, a less structured style, in France, particularly at my club, and it makes you think on your feet," he said. "It's been good for me, definitely. I've improved my game."

His arrival, five days late, means Woodward is waiting on only two of his élite selections: Jason Robinson, the England full-back, who has been granted leave to spend some time with his pregnant wife, and Gareth Thomas, the captain of Wales, who, like Jones, has been caught up in French affairs. He is still caught up with them, thanks to the the presence of his club, Toulouse, in this weekend's championship semi-finals. Should the European Cup title holders beat Stade Français in Bordeaux, he is unlikely to join the Lions before 14 June, which is less than a fortnight before the opening Test.

"Gareth finds himself between a rock and a hard place," Jones said. "I've been in touch and I know how badly he wants to be a part of the Lions. There again, he is on the verge of achieving something very special with Toulouse."

The Lions held a public training session at the North Harbour Stadium in Albany yesterday, the first of only two scheduled over the course of the 11-match tour, and were watched by more than 5,000 spectators. The Scottish loose forward Simon Taylor and the Irish lock Malcolm O'Kelly, missed out because of their respective hamstring and abdominal injuries, although O'Kelly played a part in a training run later.

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