JONNY WILKINSON TALKS EXCLUSIVELY TO EVERYTHING RUGBY
The sight of Jonny Wilkinson in his flip-flops padding through the oak-panelled corridors of Pennyhill Park – the country house hotel that doubles as England’s training base – causes dowagers to swoon over their afternoon tea.
He is the only player they recognise. “Jonny and Zara make a lovely couple,” coos one duchess, refusing to believe it is actually the big bloke with the broken nose married to the Queen’s granddaughter.
Before Wilkinson left for the biggest rugby show on earth, the England outside-half doffed his beanie to grass roots rugby, from the minis upwards; how he first caught the oval bug and the modest obsessive was born.
“I’ve been naturally drawn to the sport since I was four,” said Wilkinson.
By the age of seven he could be found practising his goal kicking at Farnham rugby club in Surrey until it was too dark to see the posts.
Wilkinson admits he was obsessed from an early age with what he wanted to do in life and even wrote his ambitions down, convinced that would help him achieve them.
Diary of Jonny aged seven and three-quarters: “ Drop the goal to win the World Cup for England.” He probably traced drawings from Gray’s Anatomy so he knew the names of all the injuries he was destined to suffer.
Yes Wilkinson would love to win the World Cup again in New Zealand, but he also hopes the tournament inspires a new generation of seven-year-olds to kick rugby balls in the twilight.
“Even as a child I loved the team ethic rugby promoted and required. It is a special kind of spirit inherent in a contact sport,” said Wilkinson.
“When kids join a rugby club they start a journey – in sport and in life. Individual accolades are great and you are very proud of them. But even as a small child, there was nothing better than being part of a team experiencing the highs and lows.”
It would take a particular seven-year-old to share Wilkinson’s drive and introspection, but it was clearly a healthy introspection, for his greatest strength as one of English rugby’s all-time greats and heading into his fourth World Cup is his ability to operate in a bubble and yet bathe in the team ethic.
“You set your own goals, but you help others achieve theirs.”
Wilkinson is both easy and difficult to talk to. He is always ready to chat. Not in a brash, ‘look at me’ way, but simply because natural affability, coupled with self-analysis, means he is desperate to answer the question.
However such is his intensity the response becomes almost a dream sequence. Ask a question, go for a couple of pints at a Surrey pub and come back to find him still deep in a soliloquy, not always easy to unravel.
There’s been Buddha and quantum physics along the way. But now the 32-year-old, complete with Mediterranean tan from Toulon, appears as relaxed and contented as he’s ever been – not to mention super-fit, taking the honours in the England squad 40-metre shuttle runs prior to departure for New Zealand.
Wilkinson admits fame has at times been claustrophobic. “It is easy under the glare to get results driven and lose sight of life in between. To think that unless you win and meet expectations, what you have done is pointless and wasted. Very few people can stare media attention in the eye without blinking. Society is led by it.”
Wilkinson says the key to dealing with intense scrutiny is “taking time out and re-assessing where you are" so you are “thriving under pressure, not just surviving it.”
“As a person and a rugby player always prepare the best and give of your best.”
All Black Dan Carter, the number 10 under the fiercest spotlight in New Zealand, also began his rugby journey as a child, running home from school to kick through the posts his father made him for his eighth birthday.
“Guys like Dan Carter deserve to be held in the highest regard. Every game he plays with pride, heart and professionalism,” said Wilkinson.
“Win or lose, despite people’s reactions, does not change the fact you have given everything you’ve got.”
The results on the rugby field, fortunately, were not as important to Wilkinson the child, as Wilkinson the professional.
“But even at the highest level the enjoyment does not come down simply to winning and losing, but in the satisfaction as a team working together and progressing. Pleasure is derived from constant challenges in a group environment.”
“It does not matter how long you play for, you always find out something more about yourself and what you are able to achieve.”
You sense the next few weeks may be another obsessive journey, but this time Wilkinson will smell the roses along the way.