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Rugby | British Lions

Jonny Wilkinson © Gallo Images

Wilkinson masterclass spices up Lions announcement



Having had eight months to finalise his British and Irish Lions squad to tour Australia it is unlikely that coach Warren Gatland would have been swayed too heavily by the action taking place two days before he unveils the chosen few.

Yet so complete was Jonny Wilkinson's domination of Sunday's Heineken Cup semifinal, where he kicked all the points in Toulon's 24-12 victory over a Saracens side with Lions favourite Owen Farrell stuttering at flyhalf, that Monday's final selection meeting was likely to be a lively one.

With Wales' Sam Warburton widely expected to be named captain when the squad is announced on Tuesday and with few, if any, left-field selections being mooted, the flyhalf situation has suddenly become the No 1 watercooler topic for Lions devotees.

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton looks a certainty to travel, with Welshman Dan Biggar and, until Sunday at least, Farrell expected to join him.

Wilkinson was generally seen to be out of the running, not least because of the overlap that sees the French Top 14 final taking place on the same day as the Lions' opening warm-up game against the Barbarians in Hong Kong on June 1.

Wilkinson, 34 next month, was on the 2001 tour of Australia and was in New Zealand in 2005, missing the 2009South Africa tour through injury.

He is fully fit at the moment, however, and performing superbly for a team about to play in the Heineken Cup final and pushing strongly for the French title.

He showed on Sunday, just as he did in the quarterfinal victory over Leicester when he was also Toulon's only scorer, that when it comes to accumulating points in the big games, there is, and arguably never has been, anyone better.

Wilkinson has never completely ruled himself out of another crack at Australia though he did his best on Sunday to dampen the speculation.

"There are young players like Owen Farrell and Toby Flood for England, Dan Biggar for Wales and Ireland's Jonny Sexton, who are taking rugby forward and it's their era," he told reporters at Twickenham.

"I'm digging my fingernails in and hanging on really and watching these guys is what it's all about."

Others, well qualified to judge, feel differently.

New Zealand flyhalf Dan Carter tweeted that he would take Sexton, Farrell and Wilkinson in the Lions party, while John Smit, who led South Africa to their 2007 World Cup final victory over Wilkinson's England, also supported him having played against him again for Saracens on Sunday.

"He is masterclass," said Smit, who led South Africa to a 2-1 series win over the Lions four years ago. "If I was an Australian I would say 'don't take Wilko for the Lions'."

Closer to home, former England and Lions hooker-turned pundit Brian Moore argued that Wilkinson's potential late arrival on the tour was an irrelevance.

INVALUABLE EXPERIENCE

"Wilkinson does not have to prove he can play Lions test rugby as only he, along with Brian O'Driscoll, has played for the Lions in Australia," he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

"That sort of experience is invaluable...if you need to play a game where accumulation of points is based on powerful and direct running of athletic and large players, is there a better number 10 available to coach Warren Gatland?"

Lions officials say that only the captain will know of his inclusion ahead of the televised announcement.

Wales's demolition of England to secure the Six Nations championship is likely to ensure a sizeable Welsh presence - a situation not harmed by the fact that Gatland's regular job is Wales coach.

England's fall from grace is also likely to be reflected in a smaller contingent than seemed likely when Stuart Lancaster's team were eyeing a grand slam, with even their ever-consistent captain Chris Robshaw in danger of missing out due to the impressive depth of back row talent available.

The Lions, who have not won a series since South Africa in 1997, play three tests against Australia on June 22, 29 and July 6.

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