Rugby Union: Wilson's place in modern game based on old values

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The Independent Online
Jeff Wilson is an endangered species: a sporting polymath in an age of rigid specialisation. As the All Blacks prepare for the first match of a four-Test tour of Britain and Ireland, Chris Hewett discusses rugby, cricket and the philosophy of enjoyment with the man John Hart, the New Zealand coach, describes as the "best wing in the world".

Sean Fitzpatrick's band of black-shirted brothers are not exactly in the throes of a phenomena famine; the trick is to identify the most phenomenal phenomenon of them all. Who might it be? Jonah Lomu: oversized, overpaid and, for the first time in a full New Zealand Test party, over here? Fitzpatrick himself, perhaps, surely the most extraordinarily resilient performer in the entire history of the game.

A good case could be made out for both, not to mention the likes of Christian Cullen and Zinzan Brooke. But the claims of Jeffrey William Wilson, otherwise known as "Goldie" and newly crowned as his country's player of the year, are every bit as persuasive.

If Lomu's notoriety stems from the almost unnatural physical weaponry he most memorably brought to bear on England in Cape Town in 1995 and the Fitzpatrick legend rests on unfathomable depths of enthusiasm and desire, Wilson's name is synonymous with raw talent. Leaving aside the great Michael Jones, who misses this tour through injury, no current All Black has been more generously blessed by the gods of sport.

The facts are simply told but overwhelming none the less. At 16, Wilson ran a high school 100 metres race in 11 seconds dead and was still carrying text books around in a satchel when he made his first rugby and cricket appearances at senior provincial level. In June 1992, aged 18, he scored 66 points in a single game in Invercargill; in January 1993, he turned out for his country in a one-day cricket international with Australia and bowled like a hero before nonchalantly stroking the winning runs; and nine months later he pulled on the Silver Fern for a Test debut against Scotland at Murrayfield. It was not too bad an afternoon as it turned out. Just the three tries and a touchline conversion.

"Yes, that was one of the good days," says Wilson, his blond mop cropped short in readiness for the battles ahead and his boyish features aglow with rude health, the beneficial result of a much-needed month away from active service. "But you'll remember what happened seven days later. Twickenham. England. Defeat. I kicked badly, very badly, that day - I think I missed five from eight - and it cost us the game. You could say it was a downer for me."

What Wilson modestly declines to mention is the fact that he was no more than a stop-gap kicker, thrown to the wolves in only his second Test by selectors who had left themselves with nowhere else to turn when Matthew Cooper, a dead-eye marksman by instinct and breeding, injured himself against the Scots. "I remember watching Jeff on the television that day and feeling extremely disappointed that a young man of his talent should have been put under that sort of pressure," says John Hart, the All Black coach. Wilson is more sanguine. "Up one week, flat on your back the next. That's the beauty of sport."

Now 24 and with 31 caps in the locker - "he's still a kid, really, but look at the experience he has," enthuses Hart - Wilson spends a good deal of time rationalising his sporting commitment, continually examining his own motives for playing the game at such a rarefied level. "I'm pretty clear-headed about it," he says. "One thing I'm not in rugby for is the money. When I stop enjoying myself, I'll give the game away, go and do something completely different. Enjoyment is the be all and end all as far as I'm concerned. When that goes, I'll go with it.

"At the moment, the enjoyment is very definitely there. There have been times in the past when I've been frustrated, stuck out there on the wing with no prospect of seeing the ball, but this All Black team is playing its rugby with a vision, a desire to entertain as well as succeed. I can go out there and demand the ball rather than hang around waiting for it. We're producing the sort of stuff I know I'd like to watch if I was paying for a seat in the stand.

"Looking back on that last game at Twickenham in '93, what sort of spectacle was it? To my mind, 15-9 and no tries is not much of a game. There's a lot of competition for spectators out there and it's vital that rugby offers some excitement. The result is not always a good one for the game."

Would he be referring to the 1995 World Cup final, perhaps? Would a New Zealand victory have been the right thing for the sport? Wilson lets slip the saddest of smiles. "South Africa are world champions," he says, quietly.

It was in the weeks following that climactic occasion in Johannesburg that Wilson made what will almost certainly prove his most profound contribution to the game he loves, not only in the narrow New Zealand context but on the wider southern hemisphere stage. Along with Josh Kronfeld, another Otago All Black, he tore the first hole in the fabric of Ross Turnbull's rebel World Rugby Corporation circus by publicly siding with the New Zealand Rugby Football Union. It was a bold step, for most of his colleagues had either signed with Turnbull's chequebook-driven enterprise or were seriously considering doing so.

"That was a path I followed in my own best interests," he recalls without the merest suggestion of holier-than-thou, told-you-so smugness. "But at the same time, I happened to think it was in the best interests of rugby in general, too. I love representing New Zealand and I take great pride in wearing the jersey. In the end, I wasn't willing to sacrifice that."

He has, however, sacrificed his cricket on the altar of All Black professionalism. "When could I hope to play? We've been on the rugby field since February and we won't get off it finally until December, so the opportunities for serious cricket are non-existent. Do I miss it? No, to be honest with you. New Zealand is one of the lesser cricketing nations and being a competitive sportsman at heart, I'd rather keep what I've got with rugby and stay shooting with the big guns."

According to Hart, Wilson is by some distance the most accomplished wing in the world. "Jeff is right on top of his game," says the coach. "The accolade he received last week, the New Zealand Player of the Year award, sums him up. His all-round qualities are of the very highest order, his defence gets better and better and he's absolutely electric with the ball in his hands. The results of his speed tests before coming here were something else."

Yet if Hart has visions of Wilson playing through the '99 World Cup and on to the 2003 tournament, the player himself sees it differently. "I'm not interested in playing if I can't improve, so I'll take stock after '99, reassess my ambitions and then make a decision on whether to carry on. I'll be 26 then, the competition for places will be amazing and there will be a thousand other things I'll want to do. One thing is for certain. I won't go past my sell-by date and start working my way back down through the grades. I wouldn't find that remotely enjoyable."