Jonny Wilkinson: Former England fly-half reveals Lions ambitions
As he makes a pilgrimage to William Webb Ellis' grave in France he tells Chris Hewett that he's happy in Toulon and doesn't regret quitting England duty – but that the lure of joining Gatland's squad is huge
The 140-year-old remains of William Webb Ellis, the creator of rugby in myth if not in fact, rest in a well-tended grave on a hillside above the French coastal town of Menton, no more than a 10-minute amble from the Italian border. The most celebrated of all Victorian sporting schoolboys may have been the first English player to be buried in these parts, but he was by no means the last. Many a red-rose team have found themselves six feet under in the land of Les Bleus. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
Yesterday, shortly after breakfast and with the autumn sun glinting off the waters of the Mediterranean, another fabled figure of the English game – a chap by the name of Wilkinson – paid a first visit to the cemetery, armed with the World Cup trophy that bears the Webb Ellis name: a prize the great goal-kicker won for his country on that night of nights in Sydney the best part of a decade ago.
"I didn't have the first idea this was where he died until I was asked to come here," admitted Jonny-boy, who had driven a couple of hours along the Côte d'Azur from his home near Toulon to mark the launch of European qualifying for the home global gathering in 2015. (For the record, Hungary face Bulgaria in a post-Soviet bloc derby later this week.)
He will not feature in the global jamboree three years hence, other than as an ambassador for the Rugby Football Union: he drew a line under his England career a few weeks after last year's traumatic World Cup in New Zealand and is not of a mind to erase it, even though he suspects he will feel the deep-seated competitive itch of old as the tournament draws near. Wilkinson is, however, very interested indeed in one final international fling, with the British & Irish Lions in Australia next summer.
"I couldn't say 'no' to that," he said, aware that the recently appointed head coach, Warren Gatland, has expressed an interest in his services, albeit in theoretical terms. "Everything about the Lions, everything the shirt represents, is enormous. I wasn't a part of the last tour back in 2009: because of injury, I didn't play a single match that season, so it was never on my radar. To go back to Australia, where we played that great series against the Wallabies in '01…
"After I announced my retirement from England rugby, I thought about what I'd done on quite a few occasions. Last summer was a really interesting time. They went off to South Africa on tour while I was playing massive games with Toulon – the semi-final of the French Championship, then the final. Those matches felt the same as the very biggest World Cup knock-out matches and I found myself thinking: 'What's the difference here?'
"But you just don't pull on an England shirt and play. There's all the things that surround it, with everything biting into everything else. That was what left me sitting in my hotel room at night, watching movies and going to bed feeling anxious, wondering what was eating me inside.
"With the Lions it's different. There's a start and there's a finish: you get your boots on, give it everything for six weeks and then it's over. You say 'thanks very much' and go your separate ways. I have an awesome season ahead of me in Toulon and I'm still pushing back my limits to see what else there might be: every time I think I've given all I have to give, I find there's a new way of looking at rugby, a new intensity about it.
"I'm coming towards the end, but if you're asking me whether England retirement means Lions retirement, the answer is 'no, not at all'."
Wilkinson is in the last few months of his contract, but according to local paper talk the Toulon owner, Mourad Boudjellal, wants to negotiate an extension. "Really? I should read more of this stuff," the Englishman said, feigning surprise. It is likely that he will stay in France for a while: he is interested in a coaching career and would like to launch it in Provence, although he will not, for typically Wilkinsonesque reasons, embark on it formally until he finishes playing.
"At Toulon, I'm already helping the other kickers: I can't bear to see an opportunity to take away someone's pain go by," he said. "But I couldn't be a player-coach. If I was telling people how to do things and then made errors of my own during a game, it would take away my power as a coach." Ever the perfectionist.
"While I'm still desperate to improve my game, I'm also conscious that rugby is a highly physical sport and I don't want to mess with the quality of my life afterwards," he continued. "And the thing I fear more than anything is being picked in a team when I don't fully think I should be, or when other people don't feel I should be. It scares the heck out of me, the possibility of someone selecting me because of what I've done in the past, or because they think I'm a nice guy.
"When I do stop playing, I'd like to coach here for a time. I absolutely adore this place, in every way. It's changed my life and changed me as a person, to the extent that I get confused when I think of how I was doing things up in Newcastle five years ago. There, we wore woolly hats for five months of the season: here, we wear T-shirts all the time. That's reducing it to a climate thing, but you know what I mean. Yet I'm still very much an Englishman in France and I'd have to be here plenty more years to be seen otherwise. If I'm going to set up a life after playing, England will probably be the foundation of it."
Talking of England – the team, not the country – the outside-half believes Stuart Lancaster's new side are in a good place to begin the long drive towards 2015. He saw signs of "collective toughness", which he regards as the crucial ingredient of success, in their performances against the Springboks in June. Interestingly, he also sees flashes of his young self in Owen Farrell, one of the players seeking preferment as Wilkinson's long-term successor in the white No 10 shirt.
"Looking at Farrell, I see him having the same constant battle in his head that I had, and still have," he said. "I see the immense drive and aggressive desire to improve – to set his personal bar even higher than the team sets the collective bar. We may have won a Test match, but you'd still find me sitting in the dressing room mulling over the things that didn't go right. The ability to do that gives you power, gives you a massive advantage over other people, and it's something else I see in him."
After watching the London Olympics on television, Wilkinson felt sufficiently energised to don his running spikes and hit the track. "Honestly, I was like a kid thinking he was Usain Bolt," he said. No one ever seriously mistook England's most famous rugby player for the world's greatest sprinter: if truth be told, Jonny-boy was never the quickest. But even at 33, he believes he can be better, if not necessarily faster. If he's right, the Lions may be the first ones to throw a party.
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World-wide webb: The origin of rugby
According to popular mythology, the game of rugby union was invented when William Webb Ellis "with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time" picked up the ball and ran. This account is refuted among rugby historians, some of whom claim that the original rules were compiled and revised by multiple schoolboys, and that before 1823 all forms of football involved running and handling.
Regardless of the true story behind the game's invention, the myth will undoubtedly persist, not least due to the naming of the Webb Ellis Cup – awarded to the winner of the Rugby World Cup. Oblivious to his inventor status, Webb Ellis spent his last years in Menton, France, where his grave remains a place of pilgrimage for rugby aficionados.
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