Wilkinson adapting to life as 'the closer'
March 1, 2011
Jonny Wilkinson replaces Toby Flood at Twickenham © PA Photos
The first time I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonny Wilkinson there was a degree of patience required. Travelling from London to Newcastle by train on a midwinter's day, I arrived early (no, really) and Jonny - forgive the use of the first name, as it is not as if he is a personal friend - was late.
He was working on his kicking, of course. It was early 2002, if I recall correctly, and although the then 22-year-old fly-half had already played many times for England, the world at large was only just beginning to comprehend his near obsession with practice.
Now, it is Wilkinson who is showing the patience. In one of the most fascinating aspects of England's pursuit of a first Triple Crown, Six Nations Championship title and Grand Slam in eight years, the golden wonder of 2003 has faced the crunch of occupying the bench behind Toby Flood for the last 11 months.
It began when Wilkinson was demoted for the final Six Nations match of last season in France and continued on the June tour of Australia. The issue was avoided in the autumn when Wilkinson turned up for England duty against the All Blacks, Wallabies, Samoans and South Africans with a shoulder injury. A four-week lay-off was prescribed, rather neatly, and Flood played on (it had been the reverse in autumn 2009 when Wilkinson started England's three Tests and Flood was injured).
With the pair of them fit again for the current Six Nations, Wilkinson was back to filling a particular role, the title of which could be borrowed from the parody of World War 1 pilots in Blackadder Goes Forth: "The 20-Minuters".
Last weekend it was more like 30 minutes, when Flood limped off at Twickenham and Wilkinson, with a penalty needing to be kicked and England leading 14-9, was introduced to an uproarious welcome. David Beckham was treated to similar ovations when he made some of his later appearances for England's football team at Wembley. It is a mixture of affection, appreciation and, of course, a belief that Wilkinson is still up to the job - the specific job, these days, of either preserving a lead (as in Sydney in June 2010 and Cardiff in February this year) or trying to effect a comeback (as, unsuccessfully, in Paris last March or Twickenham a couple of times last November).
When we shook hands at the end of that 2002 interview Jonny said something like "good, that went very well", much as a film director might have remarked after barking the word 'cut'. He seemed mature beyond his years but I'd say now, with the benefit of hindsight, he was nowhere near as worldly-wise at it appeared. Quite blinkered, in fact. But he was a very good rugby player who suffered horrendously the debilitation of injury for long periods between his three World Cups to date.
Testimony from fellow squad members these days suggests that Wilkinson trains hard and long, which the other players respect, but mostly he keeps himself to himself around the hotel. "Do as I do, not as I say", is how you might sum it up, which is absolutely fine. The likes of Chris Ashton bouncing around and Mark Cueto delivering his dry one-liners can keep the pecker up while Jonny strums on his guitar in his room or whatever.
"I am now in a role where I contribute slightly differently," Wilkinson said after the win over Wales a few weeks ago. "It is hell sat on the sideline but at the same time it is massively important. Being on the bench brings new lessons for me. My desire to play for England is still as great as it was when I won my first cap. It has been an interesting journey for me and I've learnt that if I want to play rugby I can only play it one way or I don't play it at all."
He hammered the French with a near 50-metre kick with his first touch - all that practice came in handy, you know, plus Wilkinson's mentor Dave Alred has been reintroduced to the England camp on a consultancy basis - and there was the familiar sideways skip to create space. Wilkinson also cleverly parked his body in the way of Yannick Jauzion when that little grubber by Francois Trinh-Duc almost made a try. Aurélien Rougerie was closest to getting to it but Jauzion might have done if Wilkinson had not been in the way.
We wait to see whether injury to Flood - now or in the future - will offer Wilkinson a starting place again. England have planned for it by including Charlie Hodgson as a third fly-half in all their Six Nations training camps, and it must be questionable whether Wilkinson could get through an 80-minute Test.
In any event, the extraordinary prospect is that his role as English rugby's version of the "closer" in baseball might be transcended to a big match in New Zealand, a quarter-final against France or even a semi-final or final. I reckon his best rugby was played on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour (yes, even though he gave that interception to the great Joe Roff). But here we are, a decade on, and he is enjoying his rugby and giving enjoyment, and heading towards a fourth World Cup. Can we really be sure he has the legs to carry his Indian summer on to that grandest autumnal stage, against the world's best in their pomp? The many fans cheering their "20-minuter" at Twickenham are hopeful the flesh is not too weak - because the spirit is beyond question.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.