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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
filmReview: Gyllenhaal, in one of his finest performances, is funny, engaging and sinister all at once
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington has been given a huge pay rise to extend his contract as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'
music
Arts and Entertainment
Young Fathers are the surprise winners of this year's Mercury Music Prize
music
News
i100
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

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'