James Lawton: Warren Gatland's strictness becomes a weakness as Jonny Wilkinson ends up the Lions fall guy
The tour will not be won in Hong Kong or business class of the plane going out
The official line is that Jonny Wilkinson ruled himself out of one last run for glory Down Under. There has to be another interpretation, however, and it is the more precise one that he could not meet all the demands of Lions coach Warren Gatland.
He could not report for duty at the same time as all the other boys and he would be fulfilling the contractual requirements of his French club Toulon when the curtain lifted in Hong Kong for the showpiece outing against the Barbarians.
Pity that, along, you might say, with the fact that in their telephone conversation the 33-year-old Wilkinson passed on the less than earth-shattering news that in the course of a hard and superbly played season he had been facing once more the week-by-week challenge of managing a battle-worn body. This provoked Gatland's declaration that "I think he would struggle through a seven-week tour."
No doubt this is true but then what else is new? Wilkinson has been struggling with his body ever since he started hitting opponents with the momentum of a runaway truck more than a decade ago. More relevant, perhaps, is that he is currently producing some of the most authoritative rugby of his life.
Gatland saw the latest evidence of this last Sunday when short of slipping Owen Farrell into his back pocket he could scarcely have dominated him any more profoundly.
Yet Farrell, despite a worrying fall from the huge promise he displayed at the start of the year, gets on the plane for Australia while Wilkinson, we are told, may yet emerge, clanking his battle armour, from a panel of back-up players.
Some back-up! Among much of the rugby cognoscenti there is in fact a very firm conclusion indeed. It is that when it comes down to the Test matches against Australia and the optimum resources in the pivotal attacking role the best-case scenario is not only written in the sky but also catered for in team planning.
It is for Ireland's Jonathan Sexton to lead the assault with his usual spark of aggression and creative possibilities for an hour or so before handing the duties of consolidation – or maybe a late and nerveless penalty or drop goal – to the man who has been performing them so consummately well he might find it possible to do so in his sleep.
Former England No 10 and Sky pundit Stuart Barnes was at the forefront of the argument that a failure to involve Wilkinson at some point would be "mystifying". He was among the chorus of rugby men pointing out that if Wilkinson's graceful attitude towards young rivals, including his England successor Farrell, was long established, alongside his honesty about the physical trial of pushing towards his mid-30s while still occupying a leading role in the game, it was not the same as an emphatic rejection of a challenge.
Wilkinson's body has been hurting for most of his career – but no more than the possibility that circumstances might push him away from the central action.
There is certainly some considerable irony in the fact that the two most notable omissions from the squad led, inevitably, by the Welsh firebrand Sam Warburton, are Wilkinson and the England captain Chris Robshaw.
Robshaw's greatest pain is his knowledge that despite his own dogged resistance, the Welsh rampage against his team in the final game of the Six Nations championship swept him out of Lions contention. It could hardly be otherwise when you consider the dynamic performance of the Welsh back row, and especially that of the of irrepressible Justin Tipuric, but then by the sharpest comparison there is Farrell's survival of the far greater personal debacle inflicted on him by Wilkinson's mastery in Toulon's victory over Saracens in the Heineken Cup semi-final.
While the Welsh have marched on to the Australia-bound plane, Wilkinson is left behind – at least for the moment – despite his own compelling statement that none of the successful contenders could possibly have done more than him to underline their current form.
Of course Gatland is the boss, and one who has drawn from Wales some of the very best of their great tradition in recent years. The ill-starred but magnificently coherent Welsh challenge in the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, when England were falling apart in public, is an unforgettable tribute to the Kiwi coach's ability to both organise and motivate a group of extremely talented rugby players. So, yes, that entitles him to impose the levels of discipline he chooses. Yet there is still another question: when does a disciplinary demand, like that of having all of your players sitting down on the plane at the same time, become a foible?
The answer must be that it is when it excludes a man such as Jonny Wilkinson, someone who has just displayed the most unanswerable current evidence of his capacity to win the most important matches.
Gatland also said: "He wasn't available. He said he really appreciated the call but he was committed to Toulon and would not be able to travel with the squad. I made the call to include him in the squad, I wouldn't have made it otherwise. But we wanted the whole squad to play in Hong Kong and he couldn't make that commitment."
It is not hard to see why Gatland would want to develop a sense of team at the first opportunity. There has always been a need to work on the chemistry of a Lions tour and in the ancient past this sometimes involved the threat of ransacking more than one hotel on the way. Yet the tour of 2013 will not be won in Hong Kong or the business class of an airliner.
That will happen in Brisbane or Sydney, where Wilkinson won the World Cup on a rainy night in 2003, or Melbourne. It will be the product of superior will and talent. It will be the work of someone who has answered the call so many times, on the last occasion just four days ago.
It is why, still, it is inconceivable that he will not, sooner or later, hear it at least once more.
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