Lions Watch Posted over 11 years ago

The Lions’ selectors, all two of them at the moment with only Andy Irvine, the manager, and the head coach Warren Gatland having been appointed for next year’s tour to Australia, will be paying particular attention to the return of the Heineken Cup to Cardiff Arms Park on Sunday.

They will be less concerned with those in the colour of Cardiff Blues, which is just as well given the region’s poor start to the season, than a few playing in the red of Toulon: Andrew Sheridan and the Armitage brothers will be of passing interest, but the centre of their attention will be a 33-year old who has retired from international rugby.

Jonny Wilkinson has never been part of a successful Lions tour. The only player still plying his trade who has is Simon Shaw, another member of Toulon’s foreign legion who, at the age of 39, is still making an impact. Gatland had only just been installed as the tourists’ head coach when he made a specific reference to the player whose extra-time drop goal won the 2003 World Cup for England.

Wilkinson last played for England a year ago, his 91-cap career ending on an unfitting low in the shambles of a World Cup campaign that made the finalists in the previous two tournaments the subject of considerable derision and ridicule.

That he is being seriously considered by Gatland, and the Wilkinson at Toulon plays with more freedom and enjoyment than he did in his latter years with England, is a reflection not just on his experience, achievement and ability, not least with his match-winning goal-kicking, but of the lack of a Test certainty at 10 in the current national squads of the four home unions.

The start of the autumn internationals in Europe is a few weeks away and the outside-half position is the subject of debate in England and Wales and, to a lesser degree, in Ireland and Scotland.

England have more contenders than the other three countries but it is the position that vexes their head coach Stuart Lancaster more than any other. The form 10 is Saracens’ Charlie Hodgson, who started the 2012 Six Nations, but he has retired from Test rugby.

Leicester’s Toby Flood is the most experienced outside-half in the squad, but he has been inconsistent for Leicester, where he is being challenged by the emerging George Ford. Flood’s goal-kicking has been impressive, but he has struggled to ignite his back division in tight matches.

Owen Farrell moved to fly-half when Hodgson was injured during the Six Nations and he can be described as Jonny lite: he is an accurate, nerveless goal-kicker, his defence is a strong part of his game and he is rarely ruffled. He does not offer much of a threat with the ball in hand and England have been lateral when he has been the pivot.

Gloucester’s Freddie Burns is an elusive runner who is attack-minded and his goal-kicking has improved. The first of England’s four games is against Fiji, but Lancaster has to balance any desire to experiment with the need to get the rust out of his side ahead of matches against South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Danny Cipriani has made a slow start with Sale, although he made a match-winning contribution from the bench against Cardiff Blues last weekend, while Shane Geraghty has yet to start a match for London Irish after his return from Brive.

Wales’s occupant at 10 is Rhys Priestland, who made the position his own during last year’s World Cup. He is not helped by Wales’s disinclination to play a second-five and his goal-kicking is a handicap: if the Lions play Rob Kearney at full-back in their Test team, the outside-half will have the kicking duties (unless Leigh Halfpenny is chosen on the wing).

Dan Biggar is Priestland’s challenger with Stephen Jones dropped from the squad after the World Cup. James Hook has fallen victim to his versatility, and while Gavin Henson has played impressively in two matches at outside-half for London Welsh, he is unlikely to feature next month.

Jonathan Sexton should be the leading contender for the Lions, but he has yet to boss a game for Ireland as he does for Leinster, as if spooked by the shadow cast by his rival, Ronan O’Gara; there are times, especially when the outcome in the balance, when Sexton seems to play more like O’Gara would than be himself. It will be a big season for him as well as Ireland.

Scotland’s 10 is Greig Laidlaw, a 27-year old converted scrum-half who captains Edinburgh. He is a rank outsider, but Scotland were the only home union who returned home from tour in the summer with an unbeaten record and the first international at Murrayfield next month sees the All Blacks visit.

And so Wilkinson’s form will be closely scrutinised. Although if he helps Toulon reach the Top 14 final, he would not be available for the start of the Lions tour; but that is another issue.

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Paul Rees was born in Cardiff and has been a full-time writer on rugby union since 1986, first for the South Wales Echo, then Wales and Sunday and, from 2001, the Guardian and the Observer, having contributed to the former on a freelance basis since 1988. He has covered every World Cup since 1991 and five Lions tours. When time allows, he also write on cricket, mainly Glamorgan. And away from work, he a season-ticket holder at Arsenal, watching them home and away, including the European Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris in 2006.

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