Wilkinson a step nearer to Lions call-up

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Without wishing to sound unnecessarily portentous about the Lions tour - albeit that it is the most important trip from these isles that a bunch of suited and booted rugby players can possibly make - the D-day most on the minds of those currently or recently hors de combat appears to be 17 May. That is when Sir Clive Woodward musters his men ahead of the preparatory match against Argentina and the tour itself, which departs on 25 May.

Without wishing to sound unnecessarily portentous about the Lions tour - albeit that it is the most important trip from these isles that a bunch of suited and booted rugby players can possibly make - the D-day most on the minds of those currently or recently hors de combat appears to be 17 May. That is when Sir Clive Woodward musters his men ahead of the preparatory match against Argentina and the tour itself, which departs on 25 May.

Not that Woodward has publicly circled the 17th in red for the declared fringe candidates - Jonny Wilkinson, who makes the second start of his latest comeback from injury in the Zurich Wildcard semi-final at Gloucester this afternoon, Mike Tindall and Phil Vickery.

Indeed Woodward announced last Monday that "the next 10 days are key not only for Wilkinson but for Tindall and Vickery to monitor their progress and so no decisions or announcements will be made before this time on their possible involvement in the Lions Tour party".

If Wilkinson leads Newcastle to the Wildcard final - metaphorically at least, as he has passed the team's captaincy to Colin Charvis - it would offer another chance, on Saturday at Twickenham of all places, to show the world what he has got.

He could play for the England XV against the Barbarians - but that is not until 28 May, three days after the Lions fly out. If Wilkinson goes well at Kingsholm today, Sir Clive may stick to his 10-day deadline, and anoint his World Cup-winning fly-half sooner rather than later. "It's a watching brief, there's no hard and fast date," said a spokesperson for the Lions.

Tindall, the Bath and England centre who missed out on the 2001 Lions with injury, and Vickery, a Test prop on that tour, are further away from their goal.

Vickery is not in Gloucester's 22 today and seems unlikely to be able to take any part should they make the final. He is generally fit but unable to take contact on the right forearm he broke playing against Bath in mid-February. The projected six-week recovery period has dragged on with the new radius bone proving slow to gain in strength.

Tindall, like Wilkinson and Vickery, was absent throughout this year's Six Nations' Championship with a stress fracture of the foot, and is training daily at Bath with the club's head of sports medicine, Chris Mallac. A standby place for the Lions appears the best he can hope for. Another Bath man, Matt Stevens, who by contrast advanced his case hugely in England's front row during the Six Nations, has had the brace removed from his knee after damaging ligaments a fortnight ago, and is on course to board the plane for New Zealand.

Newcastle have had their fill of Lions talk, but after a horrendous run of injuries helped curtail their involvement in the Heineken Cup and the top half of the Premiership, they are able to surround the pivotal figure of Wilkinson with a team close to full pomp today.

"There were weeks where you were looking round the changing room trying to pull 22 names out of a hat," said the director of rugby, Rob Andrew, "but we're starting to get players back now and have a bit of consistency in selection. We've had enough players to do some quality work in training, and if you look at our last couple of games you can see the improvement."

The Falcons beat London Irish 23-16 last weekend, with Wilkinson kicking 18 points, to end a run of six Premiership matches without a win. "Having Jonny in the side makes a difference," said Andrew. "Sides know they just can't infringe anywhere in their own half because he will make them pay. We want to win with attacking rugby and put on a show, but last week was a big tactical step in that we said if the opposition are constantly going to concede penalties, we'll just boot them over and beat them that way."

Gloucester's sick list after a miserable run of four home defeats includes Vickery, Henry Paul, Andy Hazell, Marcel Garvey and the previously ever-present Jon Goodridge. Both sides were rudely removed from Europe by Stade Français, and both know they need to win the Wildcard to have another crack next season. It all adds up to a lot of jostling for elbow room in the last chance saloon.

Comments