Rugby Union: A wizard on the wing: Guy Hodgson meets a New Zealand prodigy who has already graduated with double honours in rugby and cricket

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The Independent Online
THE BREED is spotted about as regularly as the dodo. Sportsmen with the talent to spread beyond one discipline reportedly died out years ago, but Jeff Wilson escaped the cull: on his 20th birthday today he has already played for New Zealand at cricket and rugby.

The Otago wing pulled on the All Black rugby jersey yesterday just in time to have represented his country at both while still a teenager. Mike Smith stretched his skill to rugby and cricket in the Fifties and Denis Compton played cricket and football for England in the Forties, but they belong to a different age when demands on time and mind did not make it hard enough to excel in one sport, never mind two.

Or they did until Wilson came along. Like the cartoon character of the same name who used to be summoned from the hills in the pages of the Wizard when England's need was direst, he is a phenomenon about to happen. First with the All Blacks, and possibly again with the New Zealand cricketers next summer. Little wonder that a journalist asked him last week: 'Is there anything you're not good at?'

Wilson, whose mother Lynne and father Bill played tennis and cricket respectively at provincial level, first nudged at prominence when he scored 66 points (nine tries and 15 conversions) in a match for Cargill High School in Invercargill. He has since scored a try of comic book proportions - tackling an opponent five yards from his own line, picking up the ball and going over at the other end - for New Zealand Schools and also provided late, match- winning, interventions for Otago. 'He doesn't seem capable of doing something quietly,' a New Zealand supporter said.

He has also represented South Island at basketball but it was at cricket that he assumed the unwanted tag of a legend in the making. Earlier this year he smashed an unbeaten match-winning 44 to resuscitate a New Zealand cause long since given up for dead in a one-day international against Australia in Hamilton, leaving the field making very un-Kiwi-like gestures of exuberance.

'It's something that comes naturally,' he said. 'If I do something right it just flows out of me. I know New Zealanders have a reputation for being quiet but If you see me running around after I've scored a try don't be surprised because it'll probably happen.'

As he left the field at Hamilton raising his fist and waving his bat he also walked into a dilemma that is unlikely to diminish. The New Zealand cricket selectors regard Wilson, who, naturally enough, is an all-rounder, as principally a one-day player at present and omitted him from the Test tour to Australia. They have checked his availability for the one-day series in the New Year, however, and the home Tests against Pakistan. A choice looms: the cricket tour of England next year or the home rugby Tests against France and South Africa.

'That's a long, long way off,' he said with a practised manner. 'I've got no preference, I love both games. I never look too far ahead. I've by no means established myself in either side so it's up to me to try and do that and keep performing. If I make both teams then I'll have to decide.

'I've had a lot of the right breaks and things have been going well for me but there are a lot of good players out there so I can take nothing for granted. Choosing between rugby and cricket is not something I'm thinking about.'

It is the All Black tour and the two Tests against Scotland and England that are claiming his concentration for now. Va'aiga Tuigamala and John Timu are the present favourites for the New Zealand wing positions but they must feel they are sitting on a volcano trying to keep Wilson beneath them. 'I'm not here to be satisfied at playing in the midweek side,' he said. 'I want to be in the Tests. If I can put pressure on the Test players that's my job.'

Wilson's youthul appearance is something of a shock. At the training ground last week he looked like a boy among men, and an onlooker commented: 'I saw the All Blacks at dinner last night and Wilson sat next to the captain, Sean Fitzpatrick. He looked so young it was pitiful. A little boy out for a meal with his dad.'

Pitiful he is not. Put a ball within range and he explodes at it. He may look like the schoolboy he was until last year but from the neck down he has the 6ft, 14st physique of a powerful man. He attacks with speed and aggression, and he has shown such accomplishment so early that the selectors were able to leave their leading try scorer, John Kirwan, at home. The New Zealanders have dubbed this squad 'Black To The Future' in acknowledgement of its inexperience, but from Wilson they are confident of getting a return on their investment.

'You go up another level when you join the international squad,' he said. 'You have to be right on target because at this level you can't rely on your mates to do it for you. You have to do it yourself. We're All Blacks and we want to win. It's as simple as that.'

Wilson's only fear, he says, is that he will make the Test team and then not perform. 'I have to face that full on,' he said. 'My father told me to enjoy myself over here and if I get the opportunity take it. If I enjoy it and do my best, things will go for me.'

There remained the question. Was there anything he didn't do well? 'Can't swim. I'm like a stone when it comes to water.' So was the dodo.

(Photographs omitted)

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