by Ben Coles
JONNY WILKINSON has declared himself available for selection for the British & Irish Lions tour to Australia in 2013, if Warren Gatland comes calling.
The Toulon fly-half retired from international rugby with England following the 2011 Rugby World Cup, but has continued his fine form in the south of France as Toulon bid to win a first Top 14 title since 1992. After 12 years with Newcastle Falcons that were littered with serious injuries, Wilkinson has produced some of his best rugby on the Côte d’Azur surrounded by world-class international talent in an environment where he clearly thrives.
Still haunted by defeat in the 2001 Lions series with Australia, the chance to settle unfinished business with the Wallabies is an alluring prospect for England’s record points-scorer.
“There’s no way I could say no. It’s such a fabulous thing in terms of what it represents. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, it’s enormous.”
Wilkinson’s history with the Lions has been mixed, with a narrow Series defeat in 2001 followed up by injury a humbling whitewash by New Zealand in 2005. Injury prevented his selection for the 2009 tour to South Africa, leaving him with a sense of unfinished business when it comes to the iconic red jersey.
At 33, age is not on his side and his absence from the upcoming November Internationals and next year’s Six Nations will deny him an opportunity to prove he can still cut it at Test level due to his international retirement.
Another factor that could hinder his selection is the same issue that has surrounded Wales prop Gethin Jenkins, with the Top 14 Final being played on the same day that the Lions face the Barbarians in Hong Kong. Toulon are currently second favourites to win the Top 14 outright and having recruited the likes of Bakkies Botha, Chris Masoe and Delon Armitage over the summer, they have never had a better chance to win the Bouclier de Brennus after finishing as runners-up last season.
What will matter come the end of the season is whether Wilkinson is a better option than the current fly-halves available. Johnny Sexton, Rhys Priestland, Toby Flood and Owen Farrell are all contenders to fill the 10 shirt against Australia, whilst James Hook and Greig Laidlaw are outside bets.
By impressing in the Heineken Cup with Toulon, Wilkinson can put himself in contention and keep his hopes alive, but it is an enormous challenge. His talent and work ethic remain outstanding, but time is not on his side. If selected however, the Lions tour could be the perfect denouement to a magnificent career.