Rugby Ubion / Twickenham Focus: Boy wonder shrugs off the great expectations: After a dazzling international debut last week, Jeff Wilson faces England today. Steve Bale found him ominously calm

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The Independent Online
JEFF WILSON did not have to pinch himself to make sure it was really happening. All he needed to do was look at the newspapers, every last one of them eulogising over the three tries with which the beginner had hammered the Scots.

Only one problem: whether the news be good or bad, Wilson leaves it to his mum and dad back home in Invercargill to read the reports and collect the cuttings. So the overwhelming attention New Zealand's sporting prodigy - now a dual rugby and cricket international - has received on tour has simply passed him by.

This is more than could be said for the ball, or Scott Hastings for that matter, at Murrayfield a week ago. 'I wouldn't know what's been in the papers; I certainly don't take any notice or care to read about myself,' Wilson said. 'I wouldn't say I'm fed up with all the attention - you can't get away from it and you have to accept that it's part of Test rugby. But I deal with it in my own way by not reading about myself. My parents, though, they read everything they can.'

The Wilsons could well have been buried under a mountain of newsprint culminating in Wilson's Test debut, at barely 20, against Scotland. Their Jeffrey is not deceived: New Zealand's first debutant to score a hat-trick of tries, not to mention his nerveless conversion of the third, were the easy part.

It will get harder for 'Golden Boy', as his team-mates irreverently call him, against England at Twickenham this afternoon. 'The worst thing that could happen is that people expect that every time,' he said. 'That could be a oncer; I hope it's not but it could be and in the next game I just have to get on and fulfil my function as a winger.

'Against Scotland play went my way; against England it may not. But as long as I function as a winger and take the opportunities others create for me I'll be satisfied. The last thing I need is to place expectancy on myself by imagining that it could be the first Test all over again.'

Considering that Wilson was still a teenager when he came on the tour, this is self- possession beyond belief. But then he knows as instinctively how to deal with a question as he does with short-pitched bowling. In his ruddy-cheeked, choirboy way, he is the face of the new, user-friendly All Blacks.

This history is simple and, to those who know New Zealand, obvious. Bill, Wilson's father, represented Southland at rugby and cricket; Lynne, his mother, at tennis. Sport was as much a part of life in Invercargill as corrugated-iron roofing and in due course Wilson junior could lay fair claim to being the finest all-round sportsman New Zealand's deep south had produced.

In June 1992, for instance, he amassed 66 points from nine tries and 15 conversions when Cargill High School beat James Hargest College 102-6 at Centrepoint Park, Invercargill, where Gavin Hastings's Lions trained a year later before beating Southland. Wilson played seven times for the province while still at school, but this year decamped to teachers' training college in Dunedin and became an irregular member of the Otago team.

When the Lions lost to Otago he was injured but when the All Blacks selectors decided it was time to give their record try-scorer, John Kirwan, an enforced rest by excluding him from this tour it was to Wilson they turned. At the time neither they nor the lad himself imagined it would be much more than a development exercise - though it did have the useful corollary of trying to claim Wilson for rugby.

This is a subject of some anxiety for Laurie Mains, the coach, because Wilson has already played four one-day cricket internationals for New Zealand and deliberately expresses no preference when asked - as he has been a thousand and one times on tour - which sport he prefers. 'I would be very disappointed if he didn't totally commit himself to rugby until after the next World Cup,' Mains said. 'Certainly that would be something I would hope for the sake of New Zealand rugby.'

Everyone agrees that Wilson, however magical a sporting wizard he may be, would find it impossible to combine two international careers, and Wilson realises he will have eventually to make an awkward decision. 'I know the time will come, but it doesn't worry me in the slightest,' he said.

'If I was to cut back on one sport, I don't think I would stop completely. I would look at other options and ways I can play, but when I arrived at a decision I would make it quite clear. I'm certainly not one for playing sport 12 months of a year.'

Surely he is kidding. He is sports-mad and when he returns to the New Zealand summer in 10 days' time, the temptation will be to pull out his whites and indulge in some immediate willow-on-leather. 'I've every intention of playing cricket when I get home,' he conceded.

'I'll see how my commitments are and how I'm feeling. Physically I'm sure I'll be OK but the mental side is the one that wears you down. I don't want to put myself in a position where I come back too early or play at too high a level when I'm not ready for it.'

Right now Wilson seems ready for anything, not least anything England can throw at him - which will probably be a lot more than Scotland did. But for all his abundant confidence, he could not have imagined it working out this way.

'My aim was firstly to learn as much as I possibly could and try to develop my skills and see where my weaknesses were,' Wilson said. 'If my form was good enough, I was looking to gain a Test spot and I was very fortunate to play against Scotland. I got a lot of opportunities and I was grateful I could take them.'

If this makes it sound merely like part of an old Wilson routine, it is. 'I've learned to come to terms with successful times. They are good to look back and reflect on. But I don't get caught in the past. That game has gone and now it's up to me to perform against England.'

England beware: everything Wing Midas touches turns to gold.

(Photograph omitted)

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