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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones