RUGBY UNION

Gatland warned as Wilkinson states case

With Lions side set to be announced, veteran flyhalf plays down call-up talk - and coach's predecessor says job is toughest in test arena

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 May, 2013, 4:49am
AFP

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As Warren Gatland prepares to name his British and Irish Lions side to tour Hong Kong and Australia amid a growing clamour to call veteran Jonny Wilkinson into the fold, one of his predecessors as coach has warned him that it is "the most demanding job in test rugby".

Gatland is due to name his party to face the Barbarians and the Wallabies today, hoping to succeed where fellow New Zealander Graham Henry failed in 2001 by leading the Lions to a series win in Australia.

And after Wilkinson delivered a near-faultless display to fire Toulon into the Heineken Cup final, scoring all of the French club's points in a 24-12 victory over Saracens at Twickenham, many in Britain were calling for him to be selected at flyhalf.

A decade ago Wilkinson broke Australian hearts by kicking an extra-time drop-goal that gave England a dramatic win over the Wallabies in the World Cup final in Sydney.

As an Australian, it's good to be on Wilko's side for once when he scores a drop-goal

"As an Australian, it's good to be on Wilko's side for once when he scores a drop-goal," said Matt Giteau, Toulon's inside centre.

Wilkinson may have retired from England duty two years ago but Sunday's performance saw UK bookmakers Ladbrokes cut his odds of being named to 5/6.

But Gatland, among a Twickenham crowd that saw Toulon captain Wilkinson outshine his opposite number, current England No 10 Owen Farrell, has indicated he will not select French-based players because the final of France's domestic Top 14 Championship takes place on June 1 - the same day the Lions begin their tour against the Barbarians in Hong Kong.

"The Lions stuff, it's difficult for me," said Wilkinson. "I think it's fabulous. It's up there with the most amazing experience you can possibly get in rugby. I watch these other guys like Owen Farrell and Toby Flood in England, and Dan Biggar in Wales and Johnny Sexton in Ireland and any number of other guys, they are driving rugby forward and perhaps they should be the ones driving this [Lions] tour forward as well."

Meanwhile, Henry, the first foreign Lions boss, said the Lions' 2-1 defeat in Australia in 2001 was down to his mistakes.

"I learned more from that experience as a coach than any other," Henry said. "I did not do things as well as I should have and made some wrong decisions. If I had got them right, we would have won the series.

"I thought I could do the job but I was green as an international coach then. I now know that the position of Lions head coach is the most demanding in test rugby," he added.

But he added that Gatland was "exactly the right man" to end the Lions' losing streak.

"Warren is an outstanding coach with a wealth of experience," said Henry. "He has led Wales to a couple of grand slams and they retained the Six Nations this year. He understands what the Lions are all about."