Will Jonny be good again?
October 14, 2008
Injury-ravaged - surely we haven't seen the back of Jonny Wilkinson © Getty Images
It was the early hours of November 23, 2003 and I was travelling back into Sydney from Olympic Park following the epic 2003 Rugby World Cup Final.
Physically and mentally exhausted I boarded the media bus with my multinational counterparts when one joked that Jonny Wilkinson might as well hang up his boots that very evening because it was never going to get any better than kicking your country to glory in surely the most dramatic finale ever.
Of course we laughed - this was surely just the latest milestone for the then 24-year-old Wilkinson who had been key to England's rise to the top of the world since making his international bow at the tender age of 18. By this time he was already England's record Test points scorer, a veteran of 50+ caps, two Rugby World Cups, a Six Nations Grand Slam winner and a British & Irish Lion. But Wilkinson would not pull on an England shirt again for 1,169 days and injuries have continued to blight the career of this fascinating player leading to some describing his career as if he was 'living life backwards'.
This rollercoaster ride for player and fans alike took it latest twist with the dislocated knee cap Wilkinson suffered whilst on domestic duty for Newcastle earlier this month. Only weeks after his return from shoulder surgery in the summer, Wilkinson had been in impressive form with more England honours surely awaiting him in the autumn and Six Nations and perhaps one of the few missing accolades on his CV - a tour with the Lions to South Africa next summer. Sadly, this latest injury has once again curtailed any plans for an international return and unsurprisingly triggered endless column inches regarding his playing future as a whole.
Wilkinson himself was quick to rule out any talk of retirement, despite suffering his 14th injury since that memorable night in Sydney - "forget it, it's not a consideration". And you wouldn't expect anything different from the man, such is his record for defying the odds and battling back from blow after blow.
But what drives him now? What does he have left to prove? He continues to strive for excellence as has always been his way. His obsessive dedication to training is part of rugby folklore, Christmas Day kicking practice and all that and if reports are to be believed, mentally, he's never been fitter. The reason? During his latest injury lay-off saw him embrace many things amongst them quantum physics and Buddhism.
"Quantum physics helped me to realise that I was creating this destructive reality and that all I needed to do to change it was to change the way I chose to perceive the world," he told The Times newspaper. Not the every day sound bite you expect from a rugby player - but Wilkinson is no ordinary rugby player - he has always stood out as exceptional even as a member of the generation that includes the twinkle-toed Austin Healey and culinary king and dance-floor dandy Matt Dawson.
"I do not like religious labels, but there is a connection between quantum physics and Buddhism, which I was also getting into," he continued. "Failing at something is one thing, but Buddhism tells us that it is up to us how we interpret that failure."
This new Wilkinson, no longer burdened by a fear of failure, is a visably more relaxed and happy figure and has taken this latest physical blow in his stride. Doing the promotional rounds for his latest book, written in conjunction with long-term friend and support Steve Black, Wilkinson has been beaming and radiating positivity which suggests, despite the obvious, all is well with him in his professional and personal life where his support has come from long-term partner Shelly Jenkins.
The fact he is comfortable enough to appear on chat shows at all is a far cry from the Wilkinson of old. And a man more at ease with himself and seemingly in control of his own destiny you would be troubled to find.
"He still wants to be the best," reads the promotional blurb for his fourth autobiographical work, "but now he enjoys the journey." Whether this is a hint that this part of the journey is nearing an end is for others to debate - and they have. Such has been his life-long dedication to this sport I cannot see a future for Wilkinson in anything but this game but don't be surprised if he opts to take a different path when he does eventually call it a day. "I have accepted my career will finish one day and I am in a place that will enable me to make that transition comfortably," he said recently, "I will not have to reinvent myself to cope with life after rugby."
He's already the all-time Test points record holder, holds the Rugby World Cup points record, has kicked more international drop goals than anyone else, has captained his country and in addition holds a host of England records. And he will be 32 years old, and perhaps more importantly his body will have three more years on the clock, when the next Rugby World Cup roles around in 2011. With the chance to tour with the Lions in 2009 increasingly slim what will drive him?
Add to this the increasing pressure of a new wave of talented English rugby player and you have a somewhat compelling argument to give his body a break and retire.
Wilkinson's latest injury blow coincided with the return to action of Danny Cipriani - one of a host of English 'young guns' primed to usurp Wilkinson in the international ranks. Much was made of the Wasps fly-half 's return from his own horrific injury in the same week that Wilkinson succumbed to his latest. Was this a changing of the guard? Many thought so.
Cipriani, at only 20 years old, seems destined for greatness but is just one of a handful of rising stars eyeing the England No.10 shirt with Leicester's Toby Flood (23), London Irish's Shane Geraghty (22) and Gloucester's Ryan Lamb (22) all mentioned in despatches.
Reports suggest that Wilkinson will take on a 'mentor' role with England in the immediate future to aid the development of this new generation - whether Wilkinson is ready to take on such a role that would perhaps signal the end of his playing contribution is another thing altogether.
And don't be too surprised if there are eventually commercial implications surrounding the decision as and when he calls time. There is the lucrative newspaper column, endorsement deals with Hackett and adidas and his publishers Headline all of whom would care to be part of the retirement 'plan' such is their investment in Wilkinson the commercial property.
I'm lucky enough to live a stone's throw from where a young Wilkinson took his first steps in the sport and remind my own son of this as I look to nurture his love of the game. And I want Wilkinson to be able to do like-wise with his own family one day - imagine in years to come, a battered Wilkinson not being able to re-enact his greatest moment with his own children because of the legacy of his injury woes?
It would be a mistake to write Wilkinson off - he has made fools of many of us with a series of Lazarus-like returns. But surely his best days are behind him? His body ravaged by a series of serious injuries, further cracks are likely to appear if he continues to play - especially in his own indomitable style.
However, I'm his biggest fan and nothing would please me more to write a glowing piece following another sensational return.