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
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television The BBC have commissioned a series of programmes doing away with high-production values, commentary, script or drama
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
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

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable