ESPN talks to Jonny Wilkinson
Plotting the next stage
July 2, 2012
Jonny Wilkinson has an unrivalled attention to detail when it comes to rugby © PA Photos
England's best known player of the last 20 years remains an enigma. So much has been written about Jonny Wilkinson that when speaking to him, you feel you know him well, but he always surprises you with an in-depth take on an aspect of the sport that has barely had column inches in the past.
He still seems to live within a realm of mental rugby torture - always thinking about the game and striving for greatness. Having that golden medal around his neck back in 2003 was clearly not enough.
Nine years later and Wilkinson still has an aura about him. His place in the rugby pantheon is already secured and he could certainly be forgiven if he opted to call time on a career during which he has contributed so much and escape to some retreat on the Mediterranean. But this is not an option for Wilkinson - that is the beauty of the man; or perhaps his albatross.
Aged 33, Wilkinson is now entering the twilight of his career. Regardless of the hours he continues to put in both on and off the field, he will retire from the game - this is something out of his control. With England now enjoying the dawn of a new era under Stuart Lancaster, Wilkinson could yet feature in his coaching set-up - an area of the game he is already dedicating hours to.
"I find myself coaching individually at the club all the time and I spend probably as much time doing that as I do my own stuff," Wilkinson told ESPN. "I still have enormous drive more than ever to get better. I now know that finding the time to help others is part of my passport to getting better. It's something I really do connect with - that ability to work with people and to help them achieve everything they can.
"I spend so much time thinking about every sort of detail, about every sort of skill and how it can be done better, more effectively, more efficiently, more accurately and more precisely. It's the thought process of my life. I wake up in the morning and immediately think about what I can do to improve myself ahead of next year; that's never going to change. I love passing that on.
"However, with regards to coaching a whole side, it's a totally different kettle of fish. You're opening up the door to man management, to building teams, to putting a coaching team in place, to co-ordinating logistics, to everything - admin as well. I know that from speaking to the guys, it's a real talent. Even what I'm talking about from a skills perspective needs researching. Look at someone like Dave Alred, who in my opinion is undoubtedly the best in my eyes at one-on-one coaching. He's always here, there and everywhere looking at how he can better everyone else and what it means being the best.
"For me it's an option in the future, but not quite yet. From an individual perspective I'm already on that path but for a team, I'm not yet ready. I know I love the game and I have my views and I will always want to be involved in it, but it's a more complex decision."
While Wilkinson can pass on his views on goal kicking, fly-half play and attempt to relay his years of experience it will be hard for another individual to mimic his mindset. Notoriously dedicated to his sport, Wilkinson must have felt out of place during the infamous World Cup last year while others ran riot. With a re-focused England back on the right track and with the northern hemisphere seemingly closing the gap on their southern rivals, the mental side of the game will become increasingly more important.
Wales' narrow losses to Australia were put down to state of mind rather than a gulf in class and Wilkinson is quick to emphasise just how important that aspect of the game has become.
"The mental side of the game is key. I have spoken about that for a while when I wrote the book and have said it in interviews before that it does make a huge difference. It's a bit like when you try and learn any skill, you start to do it and you feel the results coming. It lets you know that you're on the right track, it lets you know that it's possible and there's no doubt about that.
"Mentally going forward, that side of the game lets you know that there's no difference between you and other players, everyone is playing the same game and everyone is playing with the same ball. It's just a question of doing it well over and over again."
While England came out of their tour to South Africa with their reputations arguably enhanced, Wilkinson was part of a less-fruitful trip back in 1998 that has since become known as the 'Tour from Hell'. England were destroyed by Australia and then New Zealand before falling 18-0 to the Springboks where Josh Lewsey played at fly-half. Experiences like that made Wilkinson the player we know and according to the man himself, playing in a cauldron-like arena like Ellis Park is integral to an individual's development.
Jonny Wilkinson casts a forlorn figure at times © Getty Images
"You may carry a new boy type tag but when you get onto the field you have two options. You either say 'I can't handle this' or you get on and do it. The current England crop wouldn't opt for number one. They're going to get there and think 'Jesus, this is unique and a bit hostile' but when the game starts and you play as a rugby player that says 'I can't stand losing and I will do anything I can to help my team win'.
"Then you realise that that part of you and that part of your psyche cannot be touched by anything or anyone. It's who you are and it's what got you where you are in the first place. That's a great thing to find out as soon as you can. Until you've been out there you think for some reason that it can affect you - the fact it's 80,000 not 10,000 watching you or that you're playing at 2,000 metres above sea level, but it doesn't matter. It's the same thing regardless of where you are. It's not easy to get there but it's a simple game."
"A simple game" maybe, but as Wilkinson proves, it is immensely complicated and all-encompassing. If England can find a way of bottling some of Wilkinson's nous, passion and insight when he eventually hangs up his boots, then they will have tapped into a brilliantly unique resource from which they can only benefit.
To see Jonny Wilkinson paying tribute to club coach Vernon Neve-Dunn as a part of Gillette's Great Start Campaign visit facebook.com/GilletteUK
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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