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.

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Text messaging changes as a relationship evolves
life
News
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
Sport
Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid
football
News
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
Life and Style
food + drink
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

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?