Wallabies tests to shed light on Lions' pivot

PAUL CULLY
Last updated 13:31 02/11/2012
Jonny Wilkinson
Getty Images
PIVOTAL MAN: Jonny Wilkinson is playing well at Toulon and remains in the picture to play at No 10 for the British and Irish Lions.

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It's a sign of the age that on the eve of an influential tour of Europe a Quade Cooper tweet about a computer game has been occupying rugby minds.

The ARU's decision to take $10,000 out of Cooper's pocket, apparently for an unvarnished social media view about the merits, or otherwise, of a product called Rugby Challenge added an almost comical note to Wednesday night's judicial proceedings. But distractions off the field have been a big part of the Wallabies story this year.

To the north, more traditional debates are taking place, and perhaps none more important than the contest to wear the British and Irish Lions No 10 jersey next year.

The state of play is, of course, fluid with some about to make their moves in this month's Tests and others to see their chances dented.

It might be summarised as follows: Ireland's Jonathan Sexton is pushing hard, England's Toby Flood has good form for Leicester and should get his chance for England against the Wallabies, Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson and the Ospreys' Dan Biggar are dark horses and, most significantly, Wales' Rhys Priestland is struggling.

The Lions' pivotal position has such importance because - aside from the obvious - the tourists look in outstanding nick in other areas. The props are imposing and, in the cases of Dan Cole and Cian Healy, still improving.

The back row is overcrowded with riches (incidentally, Priestland is not alone in having form issues - some in Wales believe Sam Warburton will make the Wales team only on past deeds rather than current ones).

The outside backs have size and pace, even if the tough going through the winter months of the European leagues doesn't always allow them to express themselves. What is sought now is that mix of composure, vision and ambition at No.10 to weave the threads together.

Wilkinson's candidacy, despite his age, is not as puzzling as it seems.

Although gone from the Test arena, he is playing consistently well for Toulon. Also, his renowned professionalism is an attractive attribute in a touring party. Yet for that, you wonder whether if he books a ticket it will be a result primarily of others being injured, or confidence deserting them entirely.

It is Warren Gatland's way for his teams to attack. The Lions - with Gatland as part of the coaching team - went to South Africa in 2009 to play, and while the Wilkinson of the 2001 tour to Australia took the ball to the line, the current version has lost some of that sting.

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Challenging the defence is an admirable string to Sexton's bow. Having kicked into life for Leinster, Sexton's supporters can point to up-to-date evidence of his qualities.

Yet provincial form has never been the issue for the 27-year-old. The international stage has been unkinder. There was a famous win waiting to be grabbed by Sexton in Christchurch in June, when his pack were winning the collisions against the All Blacks in the second Test. But the Irish only walked away with regret and reservations about the refereeing.

Sexton has a fine chance to soothe the doubters against the Springboks in Dublin on November 10. With injury robbing the home side of Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney, responsibility lies even heavier on his shoulders, but there is an opportunity in that, too.

Flood has been building. When playing for the Tigers, one trait that commonly impresses is his pace. He took an intercept against Ospreys two weeks ago and never looked likely to be reeled in from halfway.

England seemed to lose faith in his qualities just before last year's World Cup, preferring the more conservative Wilkinson, but with his goal-kicking technique operating smoothly, the return to favour might be imminent.

If accuracy from the boot is one way of ascertaining the confidence of a five-eighth, it indicates that Priestland's mind is far from settled.

In one early-season fixture, his success rate for shots at goal was 14 per cent. The talented Welshman was almost unrecognisable against the Wallabies in June compared with the assured performer at the World Cup and this year's Six Nations, and he has transferred those uncertain displays on tour into his domestic form.

Such troubles bring Biggar - and casting the net wider, Scotland's Greig Laidlaw - into calculations. Both have merits - Laidlaw kicked Scotland to a win over Australia in Newcastle - yet are light on exposure at the highest level.

The openness of the field brings intrigue to this month's Tests. The Wallabies will learn a lot more about whom they are likely to face next year. But the lack of an outstanding candidate begs another question: no matter who the Lions pick, will the Wallabies have anyone to fear?

- Sydney Morning Herald

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