James Lawton: King of fly-halves Barry John gives Jonny Wilkinson the royal seal of approval to join one last Lions tour
'I was playing today I would probably kick every time. I might also have to make the odd tackle'
Some will look to the Lions squad announced by coach Warren Gatland today for an extraordinary statement of brilliance and durability. Such, they will say, would be the meaning of Jonny Wilkinson's inclusion shortly before his 34th birthday.
Among the horde of brilliant, thrusting Welshmen, almost certainly led by the young warrior Sam Warburton, we would have the unyielding Wilko, mocking the years, restating the strengths and the values that have carried him so far and have for some time made him the toast of the tough naval town of Toulon.
Yet for one considerable witness, indeed the most celebrated fly-half in the history of the game, this particular issue of touring with the Lions, or not, is irrelevant in the story of England's greatest rugby player.
"Listen," says Barry John, "if Wilko has given Gatland any indication at all that he is happy to go to Australia, if it doesn't interfere too seriously with the programme he has set for himself and his body for one more year, I'm sure he would have been on the plane long before any announcement today.
"But I don't think it's as simple as that. Gatland has said he wasn't going to pick players attached to foreign clubs, he says that he wants everybody to fly out together and that might not be possible for Jonny with his commitments in Toulon.
"But then when all is said and done, you look at what the player represents, what he has achieved right up to the point of selection, and you have to say, hey, you can make all the rules you want but if you're 20 minutes away from winning the big Test, if you need to go to someone on whom you know you can depend, well, you just might be prepared to go to a bit of trouble to have him there."
John, christened for perpetuity The King for his extraordinary performances in the 1971 Lions tour of New Zealand, has for some time mulled over the composition of today's Lions with fellow legends Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett and Gerald Davies.
"Right from the start the consensus has been that the No 10 was a matter between Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell and maybe our boy Dan Biggar, with Farrell and James Hook maybe making the squad for their ability to also play in other positions. But none of us questioned the fact that if Wilko came along and said, 'I want to be on the plane,' he would get his wish."
When John talks about Wilkinson you are privy not so much to the assessment of a remarkable rugby player as an entire sweep of the game's history.
"You couldn't begin to compare me or Phil Bennett with Jonny Wilkinson," says John, "because the game has changed so much. A friend of mine got a 10-1 winning bet on Sunday. He wagered that a try wouldn't be scored. In two of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals 66 points were scored – without a single try. The old art of playing at No 10 was that you ran and passed and made some space, got the line moving, but you know if I was playing today I would probably kick every time. I might also have to make the odd tackle."
Apart from the brilliance of his running, his ability to turn defences inside out with the ball in his hand, no one ever kicked with deadlier tactical nous than John. In the first Test of that epic New Zealand odyssey he not only undermined the All Blacks, he destroyed the international career of Fergie McCormick. The full-back was torn into so many pieces by the range and subtlety of the Welshman's kicking he never played for the All Blacks again.
Longevity, though, was never part of John's career plan and he had been out of the game six years by the time he reached Wilkinson's current age. "It was an amateur game then," he recalled yesterday, "and I trained two nights a week – well, let's put in this way, I turned up for training twice a week. In this aspect there is no point of comparison with Wilko's career.
"He has programmed himself over the years so brilliantly, with such dedication. He is an ultimate professional. He has done all his work, his practice, his looking at film, everything he felt he has had to do to be on top of the game. It would have driven me bananas.
"The result is that Jonny Wilkinson and Daniel Carter, in a different way, have emerged as the last of the great No 10s. They are still there because of their special qualities and dedication and you have to salute them, while feeling quite sorry for a lot of the others because the game has changed and their possibilities have been reduced so much.
"Wilkinson has compensated in so many ways. He has done it with his kicking, which is astonishing, his tackling, his understanding of how the game has evolved. It means that even today, and any time when he feels he is still in charge of his game and doing the necessary work, you would take him anywhere to face the greatest challenges in the game."
It is a profound tribute from one of the most gifted players rugby has ever known. It says that if a Lions ticket is still one of the great ambitions, a mark of superb achievement, this is probably less so if you have passed every test you have ever been given – and perhaps, more significantly, all those you set yourself.
Horschel's joy was a pure eruption
If you're feeling a little wan, and that life's possibilities are not exactly waxing, you might want to look up 26-year-old Billy Horschel winning his first US PGA title in New Orleans at the weekend.
Sir Nick Faldo said it was the best celebration since someone took a fiver off him on the course recently. That was nice English understatement.
Horschel, who hadn't missed a cut for nearly a year, has been in fine form recently but he needed a long and brilliant putt on the last green finally to open the door. When it came, guaranteeing his appearance in next year's US Masters, his celebration could only be described as volcanic. It was certainly wonderful to see.
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