Everybody has heard of Jonny Wilkinson. He’s the 24-year-old who kicked that drop goal to win England the Rugby World Cup – a hero in the eyes of his nation’s supporters. He’s the poster boy for the game of rugby union, able to rival David Beckham for worldwide recognition. He’s the player known simply as Jonny who gets the biggest cheer in the house when he steps out onto the Twickenham field of play. Yet for Jonathan Peter Wilkinson, speaking of his 13-year career in his own words, it’s been one hell of a journey.
Since emerging onto the England rugby scene as a fresh-faced 20-year-old he’s experienced the wretched lows of the 1998 “Tour from Hell” before the jubilant highs of the 2003 World Cup. Almost immediately afterwards, in the next match, he suffered the first of several recurring injuries (afflicting knee ligament, arm, shoulder and kidney) that have tested his willpower and self-belief more than any opponent ever has, before finally regaining consistency on the field and assuming a new, more mature role in Martin Johnson’s current England squad.
Pursuit for perfection
When Sport.co.uk gets the opportunity to speak with the current Toulon No10 it doesn’t take long to realise this experience has had a profound influence on him. “It’s been a hell of a journey,” he says. “An internal one and spiritual one more than a rugby one.”
After that memorable night in the Telstra Stadium in November 2003, Wilkinson did not appear again for England until 1,169 days had passed, in the opening game of the 2007 Six Nations. Having briefly reached the summit of success in the game, only to be sent spiralling back to reality, Wilkinson embarked on a personal pursuit of perfection, setting himself standards so high he struggled to meet them.
As witnessed in Wilkinson’s supporting role during the successful 2011 RBS Six Nations campaign he appears to have mastered his expectations. But exploring this earlier dilemma I asked him if this weight of expectation is still what drives him on.
“I honestly don’t think it’s possible to survive under that kind of weight unless it’s something that comes from within first,” he explains. “The expectation I have on myself from within has always far exceeded anything from the outside. In that vein it has been tough. There’s very little respite when you’re constantly putting pressure on yourself and analysing everything you do and searching for this perfection that clearly doesn’t exist – certainly not in this sport.”
It sounds exhausting and, despite his new supporting role for England, doesn’t sound like letting up anytime soon. “But in saying that I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have a very driven, obsessive personality and the goal is until the day I finish I want to get the most out of it. I think that will be the only way I will feel comfortable to move onto something else.”
The smile is there but it’s more of a hidden smile
Speaking in considered, thoughtful prose Wilkinson epitomises the unruffled, composed No10 witnessed on the field of play – a professional to the end. Yet, frustratingly, he also leaves you with a sense of anxiety. You want to grab him and shake him and allow him to break free of this self-imposed burden of responsibility.
For a man who has given so much to the England cause since making his debut in April 1998, with 85 caps to his name, who has delivered a World Cup for his country, and instilled so much pride for their nation in his devoted fans, you just want him to recognise his achievements and smile.
“I don’t know. The problem is when it exists inside nothing eases. But at the same time the smile is there but it’s more of a hidden smile. It’s just under the surface but it’s not one that comes out much.”
Instead Wilkinson says his enjoyment comes “in the living and the now part” in doing something which he feels he was actually “born to do at this age”.
“That’s where the smile is for me. I’m not one of those guys where you’ll see my teeth shining through too many times during a game. I’m more…intense…would be the right word. But the fulfilment – another way of saying enjoyment for me – of just being able to do that and to attach something to your lifetime is what counts for me and that’s what I consider to be the enjoyment and the smile that I find.”
The lessons learned since scoring that drop goal, living in the eternal spotlight and subsequently struggling with injuries and form, have led him to re-evaluate what he aspires for on the rugby field. For all the attention that moment heaped on his life you wonder if he almost wishes he had been playing a supporting role and it was someone else who kicked that drop goal.
“I wouldn’t swap that moment for the world,” he says. “But the course of my life changed after that. With that and the injuries it’s taught me perfection doesn’t exist.”
And herein lies the crux of Wilkinson’s cerebral journey. The key phrase is “internal fulfilment”. As he says: “You can’t guarantee every kick will go over or you’ll play your very best game but you can guarantee you’ll give everything you’ve possibly got. Allowing it to be a little imperfect has been one of the key decisions in keeping that path a little more steady and heading in the right direction.”
The Cote D’Azur
Since 2009 that path has led him to the Mediterranean-bathed coast of France, where he is dutifully answering questions under the media glare once more. The move to Top 14 outfit Toulon – from Newcastle Falcons where he had played since joining straight from school at 18 – based on the picturesque Cote D’Azur has reinvigorated the Frimley-born 31-year-old. “It is hugely enjoyable,” he says describing the climate, the region and passion of the support. “The pride and intensity of the town and the way it builds for each game is amazing.”
Clearly not affected by the recent actions of Gavin Henson – who has stirred things up as only the former Welsh international can – Wilkinson depicts a melting pot of players contributing to an atmosphere that has allowed his game to flourish once again. “For the team the spirit, the atmosphere, the chemistry and that potential for learning from all the guys who bring their past experience with them makes something incredibly special.” Toulon boast 12 nationalities in their first team squad with only an Irishman, Italian and Samoan seemingly missing.
“For me, after being injured for so long, it really has brought back the pleasure in playing the game just for playing. When you add to that the chance to go after your ambition and your goals and still challenge for a place in England rugby as well you end up realising it’s been a very good move.”
I’ve been blessed
This ambition may involve registering more success at club level. For all his worldly achievements on the international stage – the World Cup, four Six Nations championships including the 2003 Grand Slam, the IRB Player of the Year and BBC Sports Personality of the Year achievements of the same year and recently reclaiming the mantle of leading all-time Test points scorer – his successes with Newcastle Falcons have never quite reached the same heights since earning a Premiership winners medal from his debut season in professional rugby. For so long battling through pain and strife in a struggling Premiership side he is now competing at a level befitting the player of his repute.
“I’ve been blessed in a way with the number of big occasions I’ve had in my career to experience,” Wilkinson says. “Whether it be in the stadium in Australia in front of 100,000 supporters or in regular visits to Twickenham or playing at Marseille in front of 60,000 for your club. It’s ridiculous. To go to Barcelona and play on a fabulous surface, with great support for both teams – these things you will take with you for as long as you live.”
And it was in Barcelona’s sun-drenched Olympic Stadium last week where Wilkinson ran out for his first taste of knockout Heineken Cup rugby against USA Perpignan. The match ended in disappointment but an immediate opportunity for revenge in the league followed and a bonus point 43-12 victory kept Toulon on the path for a top six finish and play-off contention. Despite the disappointment of the previous week the supporters were as vociferous as ever.
That is one thing you notice when watching the Top 14 clashes compared to those of the Aviva Premiership; the support is on a par with the feistiest Tyne-Wear football derby. (Watch it here)
It’s a bit embarrassing
Wilkinson’s relationship with the fans has always been important to him. For England I asked if he ever found the attention a little embarrassing or overblown when he comes on in the final 20 minutes to be greeted by the biggest cheer in the house?
“Yeah I think you do. There are times when you’re a bit embarrassed or when there’s stuff coming your way you don’t feel you’ve quite deserved. But I’m just very privileged and very lucky in that respect.”
But in France his contribution has well and truly on the centre stage. True to form, Wilkinson is among the top three leading points scorers for the season – and the fans let you know how much they value their players.
“The guys in France are incredibly passionate about their team. They don’t like anything to happen to their team or have anything bad written about the club. They’re very protective and very encouraging. The pride and tradition of rugby in the area is special The foundations you lay in those relationships you take into your training and preparation for games because that’s ultimately what brings joy to the fans, when they see you go out there and win.”
As for missing the home comforts, the Sunday roasts and full Englishs? “My other half does cook the occasional Sunday roast so we don’t miss out on those too much. The food is a bit different and the people a bit different but in a way you embrace it. You enjoy that you can expand your tastes and boundaries as a person.”
The World Cup will be massive
From England Team Manager Johnson’s point of view – despite the RFU’s controversial decision to only select home-based players after the World Cup – he surely can’t be happier with Wilkinson’s move across the Channel. If selected Wilkinson, with his new lease of life, along with Mike Tindall, Steve Thompson and Lewis Moody, will add to the experience and knowhow in the England squad remaining from the legacy of 2003. And the trip to New Zealand has never been far from the fly-half’s thoughts.
“In the back of your mind you know 2011 is a World Cup year,” says Wilkinson. “It will be massive when that time comes around. It’s still a long time away but there will be some key moments.
“Going into 2003 and 2007 there were training sessions I look back on now and know they were the key training session but at the time you don’t know it. The only thing you can do is give everything in every second and know that if there is something that’s going to matter hopefully you’re concentrating and you take it in.”
With the interview winding down I could not help referring to the memory of that famous kick of 22 November 2003 one more time. It has been almost eight years since, so what does he hope to be doing in a further eight years time?
“Good question…I don’t think I’ll still be playing rugby,” he laughs. “Unless I do a Kris Chesney [at 37 years old] who’s currently doing just that at Toulon – it’s quite a feat.
“I’ll hopefully be relaxing, still driving myself on for achieving things, still be involved in the game, maybe helping with skills and trying to get the best out of people, and hopefully smiling and enjoying life – and certainly not regretting any part of my career.”
It is a depiction you hope – from a fan’s point of view and for his sanity’s sake – he can enjoy once he finally hangs up his boots. But for now Jonny’s journey is no longer one of a pursuit for perfection, rather an acceptance of imperfection.
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