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Wilkinson wants to play for Lions on Australian tour

Date

Mick Cleary in Menton, France

Jonny Wilkinson has declared himself available for next year's tour of Australia.

Jonny Wilkinson has declared himself available for next year's tour of Australia. Photo: Getty Images

Jonny Wilkinson has declared himself available for the Lions' tour to Australia.

Wilkinson was acting in his role as an ambassador for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, laying a commemorative tribute at the grave of rugby founder William Webb Ellis in Menton, on the French Riviera.

He will have only ceremonial duties at the World Cup having retired from international rugby last December. The British and Irish Lions, however, dance to a different beat.

Lions head coach Warren Gatland has already stated that he would be prepared to consider those not playing Test rugby. Wilkinson, who falls into that category, is keen to make up for what he calls one of the biggest disappointments of his sporting life — the Lions' 2-1 series defeat by the Wallabies in 2001.

"There's no way I could say no," said Wilkinson on Wednesday. "In terms of what the Lions represents, everything about it is enormous. It's such a fabulous thing. The joy is that it doesn't have to come with international rugby. You start, you give it everything and you finish. That's the beauty of it. You have got six weeks — get your boots on and get on with it."

There are several hurdles to clear before the dream has a chance of becoming reality, not least of which is the fact that Wilkinson's club, Toulon, is not prepared to release players if the team reaches the knockout stages of the top 14. The top 14 final is on June 1, the same day that the Lions take on the Barbarians in Hong Kong enroute to Australia. That conflict of interests may not arise if Toulon slips up.

Wilkinson acknowledges that he faces enormous competition from those in the thick of it — players such as Toby Flood and Owen Farrell with England; Ireland's Jonny Sexton; Rhys Priestland of Wales and the emerging Scot, Greig Laidlaw.

"I'm a 33-year-old foreign player in France and I'm not England's mainstay fly-half with 40 or 50 caps and leading the team," said Wilkinson. "There's an element of realism for me. There are a lot of good guys doing good things. Selection is out of my control. All I can do is play and see if I fit into those plans."

Wilkinson was unaware that Gatland had been in Toulon last month to check on the availability of players. The New Zealander has no qualms about considering Wilkinson.

"Jonny is still a fine player and he's only 33," said Gatland. "That's not old. The slate is clean for every player who wants to be considered. No one is ruled out. They don't have to be playing for their countries. What is important, though, is that they have to be coming from a side that is performing particularly well."

There is no disputing Wilkinson's credentials in that regard. Toulon reached the final of the Top 14 last season, losing to Toulouse. The team has galloped away in the league this season, winning its first six matches before sending a weakened team to Toulouse last weekend, where it suffered its first defeat. Wilkinson is the heartbeat of the Toulon side.

He will undoubtedly play a major role over the coming months, not only in the domestic championship but notably in the Heineken Cup. If Toulon should reach the later rounds of that competition, then Wilkinson would be parading his wares in an important shop window.

Wilkinson is also spurred on by his own frustrating experiences with the Lions. He missed the tour to South Africa in 2009 through injury, having struggled, as did everyone, four years earlier in New Zealand. He was riven with disappointment when the third Test in 2001 was lost in the last few minutes.

"It's niggling away at me," admitted Wilkinson. "I sat in the dressing room and it felt like a World Cup final loss. So much had gone into it. It's like trying to run a marathon, getting to the 25th mile and someone saying, 'that's it'. To complete one now you have to go right back to the start, knowing how hard the 25 miles were and knowing you could fall over after 10. It's tough."

Wilkinson is so rooted in the moment that he will set little store by what may or may not unfold in June. If he were ever to harbour doubts as to whether he is up to the challenge of the Lions, he could do worse than contact two old sparring partners, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio, both of whom made the 2005 tour despite having finished their distinguished England careers.

Wilkinson would be in very good company.

The Daily Telegraph, London

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