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News & Comment

David Flatman: Let's take Jonny Wilkinson on his own terms

From the Front Row

Lots of sportsmen receive special treatment, but not all deserve it. Offering an individual a longer leash than his team-mates is always dangerous. In reality, those of us surfing the internet from our armchairs have no idea what goes on with the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Mario Balotelli but we have all, I expect, offered a view.

Yet these guys invariably have one thing in common – genius. I watched Pietersen at Lord's and he made international opposition look like kids bowling underarm. The ease with which he battered a world-class attack was awe-inspiring.

I also watched Balotelli live last season and, although he was quite stunningly inactive for almost every minute he was on the field, when he did bother to run his pace was game-changing and his touch so good that we found ourselves laughing in disbelief.

From the outside it is easy to say that if I was in charge of these types, they would be on the first bus out of town with their tracksuits left at the door. But professional sport is about winning and, up to a point, little else matters. When a team win consistently, all manner of sins are overlooked. And in football, of course, the temporary nature of the average manager's tenure dictates that culture comes a distant second to results. Yet there is certainly room for genius talent in every team, so long as the culture is strong enough to absorb them and so long as they buy into the team ethos.

It all comes down to the ratio between value and time spent managing an individual. There are players who make managers' decisions easy by stepping so far out of line that exclusion becomes the only viable reaction. But there are also those who tip the balance so far back the other way that special treatment would or could never even be questioned. Paul Scholes strikes me, from said armchair, as one of those guys: very quiet, positively avoids attention and plays magnificently time after time, adding the sort of value that any team in the world should crave. Jonny Wilkinson is another: a zero- maintenance genius.

Rumours that Wilkinson will be flown out to join the Lions on the conclusion of the Top 14 are getting louder and louder. If he is not, I think the Lions are missing out, but if he is, in one sense, this counts as special treatment, as the squad will already be together and bonding. Physical preparation will have begun, too, and he will have taken part in none of it.

However, I think Wilkinson falls into an elite category of rugby players who have achieved so much respect from their peers that when, every now and then, they are allowed to miss a Monday session or dodge a boring event, nobody even questions the decision. Dan Carter might fall into this bracket – as would Richie McCaw – but most players carry the odd question mark around with them.

Wilkinson's only potential chink surrounds his physical condition. But while he is an old lag by now, my goodness is he fit. Anyway, I do not think he would be expected to play much – if any – midweek rugby. In Wilkinson, Warren Gatland has access to the best last-minute match-winner in the game. Even Carter cannot compete on this level. Who else on the planet would you rather have on the bench with scores tied in a mega-match with a few minutes to go?

I cannot imagine a single player disappearing back to his bedroom and questioning Wilkinson's late inclusion, should it come to pass. Owen Farrell might not like it, but that is very different from questioning it. Yes, Farrell could learn so much from the master, but there is also a good chance he would lose his spot on the bench behind Jonny Sexton. This would be tough to stomach, but few could disagree should Gatland choose to include those magic kicking feet in his Test squad.

And should his body break down, well, Wilkinson is worth his tour fee as a presence alone. Just a few weeks with Jonny in the room would offer a perspective and a depth of knowledge that soon will be lost for good. What an asset he is, but he won't offer much from his armchair.