Brian Ashton: Wilkinson's deal sets real challenge for RFU selectors

Tackling The Issues
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Those with a well-developed taste for the ironic must have been amused by the sight of Toulon taking the field in Reading last Sunday with five Englishmen in their starting line-up, especially as London Irish fielded only eight of their own.

Less than a fortnight before the game, the Rugby Football Union had publicly toughened its stance against any ambitious candidates for representative honours who might be tempted to broaden their horizons by playing offshore for a season or two. In light of the thoroughly modern, invigoratingly international flavour of the Anglo-French contest at the Madejski Stadium, is the governing body's argument really so clear-cut?

Of Toulon's "mother country quintet", I suppose only Jonny Wilkinson and Paul Sackey might come on to the radar of the England selectors in the foreseeable future, and Paul has already announced his intention to retire from international rugby after next year's World Cup. I have a lot of time for the former Wasps wing: off the field, he is a very cool dude; on it, he has the predatory instinct common to all natural finishers. It's good to see him enjoying himself down there in the south of France.

Predictably, the lion's share of the commentary surrounding the RFU's edict has been centred on Wilkinson's position vis-à-vis his contractual situation at Toulon. Will he sign a new deal? If he does, how will it affect his chances of playing at the World Cup in New Zealand in nine months? As far as we can tell, he appears set on staying in France, and in theory, this puts him in the danger zone as far as non-selection for England is concerned. Yet judging by the way he played at London Irish, it will take a brave selector to leave him out.

After the game, Jonny talked – as he so often does – about his constant desire to improve. This rings true with anyone who has worked closely with him and knows him well, because he has spent his entire career seeking out and making the tiny adjustments in preparation and technique that might make him a more effective player. No one ever questioned his work ethic, his dedication, his determination to be the best he can be. If he feels the French club environment is conducive to all that, good luck to him.

His performance last weekend brought back memories of Wilkinson in his pomp. Thanks to that work ethic of his, he has always had an outstanding technique: the dexterity of his passing and the potency of his kicking off either foot are without peer; his defence is still good enough to deal with most situations. If his kicking no longer scares opponents to death in the way it did in Bloemfontein a decade ago he remains as dependable as any kicker in the sport.

What really intrigued me about Wilkinson's display was his liberated approach to orchestrating and conducting Toulon's rugby – something I suspect took London Irish a little by surprise. When appropriate, he played right up in the faces of the Exiles' defence and frequently ran the ball himself. At other times, he brought those around him into the game with precise contributions from hand and foot. He switched the point and focus of attack intelligently, and, on more than one occasion, counter-attacked boldly off turnover ball. All in all, I saw a very different player to the one who appeared in an England shirt over the last 12 months. If this is what comes from spending some time in France...

As we're on the subject of events in Reading, what about Joe van Niekerk? Here was an exceptional performance from a tremendously explosive, technically gifted individual – a No 8 who was not content simply to "cross the gainline", to use the modern parlance. Instead, he actively sought to break the tackle line in a whole series of inventive and unpredictable ways, get in behind the defence and cause havoc. He gave Toulon a different attacking dimension, asked some unanswerable questions of London Irish and reaffirmed his status as one of the modern game's unique players.

Conflicting demands made Venter's rebellion inevitable

Brendan Venter: non-conformist, or merely disrespectful? The rebel in me says the tick belongs in the first box. If the media insist on shoving microphones under the noses of coaches and players directly after important contests and the governing bodies complain when the answers to questions are truthful but not to their liking, where the hell do we end up? In the strange world of last week's Vicarage Road interview, that's where.

There are conflicting forces at work here: satisfying the demands of the broadcasters while wanting people to toe the party line and do their bit to keep the administrators and tournament sponsors happy. All I know is this: the best press conferences I ever saw were those given by my sporting idol Muhammad Ali. They were irreverent, arrogantly prophetic and, without exception, brutally honest. Did they toe the party line? Not quite.

Some of Venter's rival coaches – Toby Booth of London Irish, for instance – saw the funny side but not the administrators of European Rugby Cup Ltd. Big Brother is watching.

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