James Lawton: Wilkinson over Farrell for the Lions? His vital talent leaves Gatland no choice
Wilkinson had rarely produced such a welling of authority
Take Jonny Wilkinson with the Lions? Do it when he is 33, 34 next month? Turn back the clock, deliver a crushing blow to his anointed successor, the potentially iconic Owen Farrell? But what else could you possibly do?
The Lions coach Warren Gatland scarcely has a choice. Not if he wants to live in the reality of the performances of the hour and the day rather than the tyranny of time Wilkinson so brilliantly rejected at Twickenham yesterday.
We see many resurrections in sport. We see much resistance to the dying of the light. But how many boxing rings and Test grounds and racetracks and football fields do we have to re-visit to see again something quite as perfect as the show Wilkinson put on at Twickenham?
Sadly, the old place at which Wilkinson was appearing for the 46th time had far too many empty spaces on the terraces to be the perfect shrine for one of the nation's greatest sportsmen.
It didn't matter so much, however, because this wasn't a ceremonial occasion. It was another example of how it is when a professional sportsman – and did anyone ever earn the title more thoroughly down the years? – insists that he will play only so long as he can make the most significant difference.
Wilkinson did so much more than carry Toulon to the final of the Heineken Cup with all 24 points in the victory over Saracens.
He was a source of unending confidence. Astonishingly, his kicking, for seven penalties and an eviscerating dropped goal late in the game, had rarely produced such a welling of authority as we saw on what many had billed as the last of his headquarter hurrahs.
His hands were wonders of adhesion. His short, cutting breaks across the gain line demanded Saracens' unbroken attention. His tactical kicking was acute. More than anything, he was a point of certainty around which men like the superbly weathered Argentina lock Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the French earth-mover Mathieu Bastareaud and another impressively evolved veteran, Australian Matt Giteau, could apply frequently withering power.
Brendan Venter, the rugby director of Saracens, had said how much he was looking forward to a nice little war. Unfortunately, he could never be sure of the precise terms of combat. Wilkinson seemed to have written them out on the eve of battle and resolved never to move a half-step away from the core of their meaning.
When he finally broke Saracens, as he had done Leicester in the quarter-final, the resulting cameo was a picture not just of sport but life. Farrell, who has come so far so quickly, had strained every fibre to smother the drop goal attempt but in his moment of failure, when he lay on the ground wrapped around the man under whose shadow he had grown, his head bowed against his chest. He had been exposed to some of the mysteries that time and experience has not yet permitted him to master and when this realisation came he felt a comradely pat. It was from Wilkinson and it said so many things apart from the fact that sometimes you learn far more from certain defeats than any number of facile victories.
It said that Wilko also knew the agonies that accompany the rites of passages. Maybe he remembered the doubts he carried into the great triumph of his career, the World Cup final of 2003 in Sydney, which came a week after creative responsibilities had been handed to the much more experienced Mike Catt in a quarter-final against Wales that was threatening to go seriously wrong.
Yesterday Farrell was pulled down by an accumulation of doubt. He had the first missed beat in the kicking battle just before half-time, pulling wide a penalty which would have left the teams level at the interval. Soon afterwards he ruined a three-to-one advantage with a pass which flew forward. At the start of his meteoric rise, in the Six Nations against Scotland, he attempted a similar pass and it flew beautifully. He has learned since that he has still much to learn and to absorb.
The latest evidence was the sight of his great predecessor proclaiming his ownership of a still vital talent – and also that of his team-mate Charlie Hodgson, who for all fine his ability, could never quite seize the Wilkinson succession, coming off the bench and playing in the lost cause with a haunting subtlety.
Inevitably, Wilkinson was declared man of the match but given all the circumstances it seemed a curiously slender distinction. He was also a man of strange times in sport, when celebrity invades so much half-formed achievement, and what you wanted to give him was the kind of recognition that goes beyond the glories of one passing achievement beautifully accomplished. It was the salute that goes only to those who have most consistently demanded the best of themselves.
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