Wilkinson gearing up for Lions mission

Jonny Wilkinson will finally emerge from the Lions' New Zealand den this week and England's celebrated World Cup winner declared: "It is not a chance I want to waste." [more]

Lions Australia Tour 2013

Jonny Wilkinson will finally emerge from the Lions’ New Zealand den this week and England’s celebrated World Cup winner declared: "It is not a chance I want to waste."

The fly-half superstar spearheads a Test-strength British & Irish Lions side as coach Sir Clive Woodward wheels out his big guns for the clash against Wellington on Wednesday.

Wilkinson features in a probable Test team back division – accompanied by Josh Lewsey, Gareth Thomas, captain Brian O’Driscoll, Gavin Henson, Jason Robinson and Dwayne Peel.

Up front, it is an entirely different story – with hooker Shane Byrne and flanker Neil Back among those looking to leave an indelible mark on Woodward and his fellow coaches.

Leicester flanker Back, at 36 the oldest player ever selected in an original Lions squad, returns to action after serving a four-week ban for punching former England team-mate Joe Worsley in last month’s Zurich Premiership final.

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Following a resounding defeat at the hands of New Zealand Maori, the Lions’ morale could take a fearful bashing if they come unstuck for a second time in five days.

Wilkinson’s presence, though, should ensure that does not happen as he makes a second appearance in the representative arena since World Cup 2003 following his comeback during the Lions’ pre-tour game against Argentina.

Given Wilkinson’s prolonged post-World Cup injury problems, the mere sight of him wearing a Lions number 10 shirt in New Zealand will be worth savouring.

"It hasn’t been frustrating for me," he said, assessing a patient wait for Woodward’s call – after fellow fly-halves Ronan O’Gara, Charlie Hodgson and Stephen Jones all headed him in the queue.

"Part of it has been trying to take it all in and enjoy the whole atmosphere that has been created here. It is an opportunity not to be missed, I think – and like anyone else, it is not a chance I want to waste.

"Being able to train, for me, makes my life so much simpler and easier. But nothing lets you know where you stand more than being out out there under the pressure, under the lights and to show yourself how you are really playing.

"The Argentina game gave me an insight, and now I am moving on to this match against what I am sure will be a fantastic Wellington side," Wilkinson added.

"It will also allow me to find out where I am – and until then, I cannot make any predictions about how I am going to play or where I see myself.

"This, for me, has got to be about everything I’ve got; then when I wake up on Thursday morning it’s going to be a case of preparing for my next opportunity. Undoubtedly, there is a need to keep momentum going."

Wilkinson, Back, Thomas, Robinson, Byrne and his fellow Irishman Simon Easterby – replacement for the injured Lawrence Dallaglio – all make their first starts on tour.

Lewsey, O’Driscoll and prop Julian White face a second game in five days.

"We had always targeted this game to pick a pretty strong team," said Woodward.

"Wednesday’s game is a big match in terms of getting Test selection right.

"We are pretty confident we can go into the first Test match (on June 25) pretty battle-hardened."

As for Back’s availability, Woodward enthused: "One of the world’s best openside flankers is playing on Wednesday night. I think you will see a super-charged performance from him."

Back and Martyn Williams are seemingly scrapping it out for the Test number seven jersey – and a daunting head-to-head with brilliant All Blacks forward Richie McCaw – but Wilkinson inevitably takes centre stage as the Lions look to make a statement of intent.

"Like everyone else, I didn’t come into this tour blind. I have been a huge admirer of New Zealand rugby for a long time and New Zealand players, growing up – like Frank Bunce, Walter Little and Grant Fox," Wilkinson said.

"There weren’t going to be any easy games, and that is why learning from these early games is so important. Trying to learn from the first Test about the second Test, it will be too late then.

"Learning from the Maori game and the Bay of Plenty game, all these things, is going to help us – and we need to make sure we get that in place by the time we reach the Test series.

"Nobody cares more about this tour or this squad than the players on it and the management. That’s being shown by the effort being put in every day to try and get everything right and the players perfectly prepared to give their best.

"When you see people like Lawrence (Dallaglio), whose tour has ended prematurely, you think how lucky am I to be here?

"There is no bigger moment on this Lions tour, right now, than Wednesday’s game. Once Wednesday’s game goes, there will be no bigger moment than next Saturday’s game (against Otago)."

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